Mecole Hardman is the Biggest Dynasty Football Buy of the Offseason
There are two players that I have rostered in literally every single one of my dynasty leagues. Those players are Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. While Hill is widely valued as a top-five dynasty wide receiver by the majority of the community, Hardman’s dynasty value is still surprisingly low. As a proponent of Hardman since Kansas City selected him in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, 2020 could spark a colossal breakout for the speedy sophomore due to expanding opportunity, natural talent, and developing skill.
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Offensive Snaps & Targets
In 2019, Hardman played just 45 percent of Kansas City’s offensive snaps, and he garnered just seven percent of the team’s total target share. The low usage rate makes sense given the Chiefs’ preeminent receiving corps, with Pro-Bowl talents Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill dominating the majority of Patrick Mahomes‘s targets. Andy Reid’s offensive scheme is also a complex, well-oiled machine. It’s natural for a rookie wide receiver like Hardman to gradually learn the system before being fully integrated as a key cog in the offense. As expected, his offensive snaps and target share were low relative to the other established receivers in Kansas City.
Even playing just 471 snaps on offense and garnering a meager 41 targets, Hardman made some spectacular plays, finishing the year with 538 receiving yards and six touchdowns (startlingly similar to Hill’s rookie production of 593 receiving yards and six touchdowns). At a glance, it would seem that both Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson were major factors and heavily involved in the Chiefs’ offense last year. However, the above offensive snaps and target shares do not take into account the various games missed by Hill, Watkins, and Mahomes due to injury. The table below better illustrates what an adjusted breakdown in offensive snaps and targets would’ve looked like had all three stayed healthy.
This adjusted table actually looks more foreboding for Hardman’s 2020 outlook, as his adjusted snap rate fell from 45 to 27 percent, and his adjusted targets per snap decreased from 0.09 down to just 0.05. But Hardman’s adjusted snap rate and target share would only be disconcerting if we were projecting him for a similar role next season, which is most certainly not the case.
In reality, the adjusted numbers show that all three of Watkins, Robinson, and Hardman played lesser roles once Hill was fully healthy. Behind Kelce and Hill, there simply weren’t enough remaining targets to be split among these three receivers to allow for consistent fantasy production. So while Hardman’s rookie usage isn’t particularly encouraging, Kansas City’s wide receiver depth chart will likely look very different come next season, as they will probably part ways with Watkins this offseason.
Side note: if any league mates are concerned about Hill’s usage last year, and he can be acquired for less than top-five dynasty wide receiver prices, I would recommend doing so immediately given his adjusted 25 percent target share.
Projecting Roster Turnover
Kansas City is in a difficult bind with their salary cap but managed to squeeze in re-signing Robinson, an impending free agent, to a one-year deal worth $2.3 million but counting just $1 million against the cap. As of this writing, the Chiefs have the least amount of salary cap space in the league, a paltry $177. You are reading that correctly. Not $177 thousand, literally 177 dollars.
For now, Watkins’s salary cap hit in 2020 would be an enormous $21 million. With Kansas City tightly up against the cap and needing to prioritize re-signing Chris Jones long-term and extending Mahomes to what will inevitably be a record-breaking contract, Watkins is a clear candidate to be traded or released.
In fact, Watkins seemed open to reuniting with college teammate DeAndre Hopkins, though that was prior to Houston trading Hopkins to Arizona. That said, it’s possible that another team with ample cap space could be willing to take on Watkins’s salary in exchange for a late-round draft pick from the Chiefs.
If there are no takers, then Kansas City could still opt to release Watkins to save $14 million next year, albeit with $7 million in dead money. While the Chiefs reportedly would like to find a way to restructure Watkins’s contract to retain him, it would seem that the two sides are not yet close to striking an agreement. Watkins recently tweeted cryptically about his “next adventure”, and him staying in Kansas City seems even less likely now with Robinson returning on a cheap one-year deal.
Or perhaps a solution may well materialize on its own, with Watkins potentially taking a break from football next season. Prior to the Super Bowl win over the 49ers in February, he stated, “If we win it, I might chill out. I might sit out a year. You just never know.” That would certainly solve the problem for all parties involved. Regardless of the specifics, the fact of the matter is that Kansas City will probably go into the 2020 season without Watkins on the roster. And while the Chiefs may add a cheap free agent or late-round rookie receiver, neither option would overtake Hardman on the depth chart.
Hardman’s 2020 Outlook
So what would Hardman’s 2020 outlook be if Watkins is indeed gone? Though Robinson played more snaps and received more targets than the rookie in 2019, that was to be expected due to Hardman’s inexperience in the offense. Despite that, Hardman still managed to outproduce Robinson in both yardage and touchdowns last season. There was clearly a drastic difference in performance and efficiency between the two receivers.
Many presume that Hardman was primarily a deep threat last year, as most of his highlights were long touchdowns. However, Robinson actually had a higher average depth of target (aDOT) than Hardman did in 2019. And despite Robinson’s team-high aDOT of 13.2 yards compared to Hardman’s 11.2-yard aDOT, Robinson’s yards per reception (YPR), catch rate, and scoring rate were all worse than Hardman’s. Robinson averaged just 14.0 YPR, a 58 percent catch rate, and scored a touchdown on around 13 percent of his catches, whereas Hardman averaged a league-high 20.7 YPR, caught 63 percent of his targets, and scored a touchdown on around 23 percent of his catches.
Hardman also far exceeded Robinson in efficiency based on receiver air conversion ratio (RACR). Per AirYards.com, RACR is an efficiency metric calculated by dividing air yards against receiving yards. In doing so, RACR rolls up catch rate and yards after the catch into one number. It can also be thought of as the number of receiving yards a player creates for every air yard thrown at him. Among wide receivers with more than 10 receptions in 2019, Hardman ranked fourth in RACR compared to Robinson coming in at no. 100.
With this in mind, even with Robinson there as veteran depth at the wide receiver position, it’s more than plausible that it will be Hardman who would step into the no. 2 wide receiver role in 2020 with Watkins gone, not Robinson. And if we assume Hardman’s usage next season to be similar to Watkins’s 2019 target share, referencing the above table of adjusted offensive snaps and targets, we can reasonably project Hardman for around 15 percent of the team’s total targets.
Mahomes threw 580 passes in 2018, and extrapolating his per-game pass attempts in the 13 games for which he was fully active in 2019, he would’ve totaled 582 pass attempts last season. Using an assumption of 581 pass attempts for 2020, Hardman’s projected 15 percent target share would roughly equate to 87 targets.
In 2019, as mentioned above, Hardman caught 63 percent of his targets, averaged a league-high 20.7 YPR, and scored a touchdown on around 23 percent of his catches. But regression will inevitably come along with expanded target share, both in YPR as well as scoring rate. Last season, the Chiefs’ top five receivers in Kelce, Hill, Watkins, Robinson, and Hardman together averaged a 65 percent catch rate, 14.1 YPR, and a nine percent scoring rate. If we were to take the mean between Hardman’s per-reception totals and that of the Chiefs’ top receivers, the resulting figures would be a 64 percent catch rate, 17.4 YPR, and a 16 percent scoring rate.
Applying these averages to a projected total of 87 targets for Hardman in 2020 would result in 56 receptions for 969 yards and nine touchdowns. These totals equate to 206.6 fantasy points in PPR formats, which would’ve made Hardman the fantasy WR25 last year, barely behind other emerging young wide receivers like A.J. Brown and Michael Gallup and ahead of fellow rookie D.K. Metcalf. And that’s if Hardman receives close to the same amount of snaps and targets that Watkins did in 2019, but it’s possible that Hardman could be utilized even more than Watkins was given his explosive skill set. The production potential for Hardman is tantalizing if his usage increases as projected, but has he developed enough to actually command this type of target share?
Talent & Skill
Speed Can’t Be Taught
As a rookie, Hardman made an immediate impact in a number of the Chiefs’ wins, notably as a kick returner. On offense, although Hardman’s season-long totals weren’t particularly impressive due to lack of target share, his per-reception metrics were outstanding due to his speed. As mentioned above, Hardman led the league last year in yards per reception (20.7), but he also led the league in yards per target (13.1). And among wide receivers with more than 10 receptions, Hardman was again at the top of the list in yards after the catch per reception (YAC/R). His 11.2 YAC/R in 2019 dwarfed the next highest player, which was A.J. Brown with 8.9 YAC/R.
Additionally, Hardman and Saquon Barkley were the only two players last season to place twice in the top-10 of Next Gen Stats‘ list of fastest ball carriers. And anytime a player is mentioned alongside an elite talent like Barkley, it’s generally a good thing.
Pure speed is a physical talent and simply can’t be taught. Like his teammate Hill, Hardman is among the fastest players in the NFL, logging a 4.33 40-yard dash at the 2019 NFL Combine. While Hill didn’t participate in the 2016 NFL Combine prior to his rookie year due to off-field concerns, he ran a 4.29 40-yard dash at West Alabama’s Pro Day.
Looking back, Hill’s murky playing status last spring may have been a blessing in disguise for Mahomes, as the Chiefs ended up adding Hardman to a receiving corps already full of talent. Though they may have originally drafted Hardman as an insurance policy, he could end up being another elite offensive player, creating a speedy and lethal one-two punch with Hill that could be unrivaled in the league.
With the threat of Hill occupying safeties and Kelce demanding coverage up the seam, Hardman will have plenty of one-on-one opportunities on which he can capitalize. As a rookie, Hardman generated an impressive 153.9 passer rating when targeted, and his lightning quickness and elusiveness after the catch were on full display as he scored in a number of different ways. The same skill sets that make Hardman and Hill dangerous kickoff and punt returners are also applicable to offensive plays.
Hardman’s elite speed was apparent on his impressive 104-yard kickoff return touchdown against the Chargers in Week 17. In Week 10, he utilized that same speed to split two Titans defenders after catching a pass at midfield, taking it 49 yards to the end zone. And in much of the same way that Kansas City uses Hill on screen passes, trick plays, and even as a ball carrier, Hardman is likewise versatile behind the line of scrimmage, prominently shown on his score on a jet sweep against the Packers in Week 8. Hardman’s agility and incredible acceleration make him a threat to score anytime he touches the ball.
Developing into a Complete Receiver
Of course, speed alone isn’t enough for a player to become a truly impactful wide receiver. Just look at speedsters like John Ross and Marquise Goodwin. Neither of these wide receivers are true difference-makers for their respective teams, and both are barely clinging to fantasy relevance. Hardman’s route-running skills were admittedly a work-in-progress entering the league, and he has yet to perfect his footwork, fully understand the nuances of beating press-man coverage or consistently find the soft spots in zone coverage.
However, many are incorrectly assuming that Hardman is only a deep-ball receiver or a gadget-type player, much like how many made the same criticisms of Hill when he first found success in Kansas City. Luckily, Andy Reid has had experience developing speedsters into more complete wide receivers. Hill’s presence on the depth chart may limit Hardman’s fantasy ceiling in the short-term, but it has been a boon for Hardman’s development. Reid believes that Hill’s experience and teachings have been substantial to Hardman’s development thus far:
Well, it’s that way with fast guys. They can get away with things that a lot of guys can’t. To have somebody there to be able to talk to about how to work the secondary, that’s priceless.
As the 2019 season progressed, Hardman showed well when he did see the field. And while there’s no definitive measure of Hardman’s development, as far back as late last season, Reid spoke about Hardman’s work ethic and Mahomes’s trust in the rookie receiver. Mahomes, too, commended Hardman on his progress late last year:
[Hardman] understands more now that when he’s running a route, he can make adjustments…it was all about him figuring out the offense and how he fit into it and how he was able to stay on time and still use his speed and be effective. I’ve just built that chemistry with him throughout the season.
Another full offseason (maybe more depending on whether the start of the 2020 NFL season is postponed due to coronavirus concerns) will give Hardman even more time to fully integrate into the offense and establish a strong rapport with Mahomes. Under Reid’s tutelage and with Mahomes’s arm, the sky really is the limit for Hardman.
In an ideal situation, Hardman will be the clear No. 2 wide receiver behind Hill next season with a healthy 15 percent or higher target share. Expecting development as a receiver, Hardman would be utilized on a variety of routes and trick plays, leading to fantasy WR2 production or more. Even in a worst-case scenario in which the Chiefs find a way to restructure Watkins’s contract and retain him for 2020, Hardman would still be a boom-or-bust WR3 or flex play with upside and perhaps more if (when) Watkins were to miss time. After all, Watkins hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since his rookie year back in 2014.
According to Dynasty Trade Calculator, Hardman is valued far below other young wide receiver prospects like Brown, Metcalf, and Gallup. Whereas Brown is valued around the 1.01 or 1.02 rookie pick, and Metcalf and Gallup are both valued in the mid-first round, Hardman’s valuation is around the 2.04 rookie pick.
Brown is the top receiver in Tennessee and performed admirably last year, and though the Titans have a run-heavy offense, there’s a legitimate argument for Brown to be valued over Hardman. However, like Hardman, Gallup is the no. 2 wide receiver in Dallas behind Amari Cooper and arguably third in line for touches behind Ezekiel Elliott as well. Likewise, Metcalf will be splitting targets with Tyler Lockett and now the recently-signed Phillip Dorsett, all while playing in a run-first offense in Seattle. And yet, Hardman’s dynasty price is far lower than those of both Gallup and Metcalf, inexplicably so.
A player with a fairly safe floor as a fantasy WR3 or flex who also has a fantasy ceiling as a WR2 or higher should merit at least a first-round rookie pick valuation. But it would seem that’s not the case as it stands. Per the results of a recent Twitter poll shown below, more than half of the respondents had Hardman at a second-round rookie pick valuation. And of the minority willing to pay a first-round rookie pick for him, the vast majority would only be willing to part with a late first-round pick.
— 𝔽𝔽𝔸 🏈 𝐌𝐄𝐍𝐆 (@FFA_Meng) March 23, 2020
Though there’s understandable concern over Hardman’s low target share last year, the odds of him stepping into the no. 2 wide receiver role in Kansas City are good given their current salary cap situation. But if and when the Chiefs trade or release Watkins, it will be far too late to buy low on Hardman. The time to strike is now, as he has similar upside to other 2019 rookies who are valued far higher. It’s baffling to understand why when Hardman has similar talent but is playing in one of the most efficient offenses in the league and with the best quarterback in the league.
I’d argue that acquiring Hardman at the price of a second-round rookie pick would be a tremendous steal, and a proper dynasty valuation would be a mid-first-round rookie pick, similar to where Gallup and Metcalf are currently valued. Personally, it would take a top-three or so rookie pick for me to sell Hardman in dynasty. Hardman’s fantasy ceiling isn’t far below that of Brown, and yet there is a drastic difference in how the dynasty community values these two promising second-year receivers…for now.
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