KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman has heard the talk after two NFL seasons: The only thing he has going for him is his 4.33 speed. He made it clear in the week leading up to Super Bowl LV that he's bothered by the suggestions he's something less than a complete receiver.
"I can really run routes," Hardman said a few days before the Chiefs lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "That kind of makes me mad when people say, 'Oh, he's just a deep ball threat.' I literally can run routes very well. People don't really see it because a lot of my routes are down the field. You've got Travis [Kelce] and Sammy [Watkins] and Tyreek [Hill] for all that other stuff. They can do everything across the board. I can really run routes really [well]. I get out of my breaks very well.
"A lot of people [think] I can't run routes. I'm like, 'What?' People have the misunderstanding that I can't run routes. I'm very capable of running every route on the tree."
The Chiefs haven't shown that confidence in Hardman yet. He's been a part-time player since the Chiefs drafted him in the second round of the 2019 draft and the reasons for that seemed apparent in the Super Bowl. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw Hardman's way six times but completed just two passes for 4 yards.
If the Chiefs agree that Hardman is more well-rounded and not just a threat on deep throws, jet sweeps and end arounds, it may soon be time for them to prove it. Watkins and Demarcus Robinson, who were second and third behind Tyreek Hill in 2020 among Chiefs wide receivers in snaps played, are potential unrestricted free agents.
Hardman would be the first in line to claim their playing time. The Chiefs drafted him to be an eventual starter. It seems clear that if the Chiefs with a tight salary cap situation re-sign Watkins or Robinson or find their replacements elsewhere, they don't agree with Hardman in his assessment that he's ready to be an every-down receiver.
Hardman has brought value to the Chiefs. In two seasons, he has eight touchdown catches of at least 20 yards, which is tied for second in the league despite his limited playing time. He has been their primary punt returner and despite some fumbling problems helped the Chiefs there as well.
"Those types of things keep a defense honest," Hardman said of the plays like jet sweeps and end arounds that the Chiefs favor for him. "Whenever I can get to the edge, I think I've got a pretty good feel of finding my way through the holes and getting down the field. I think [coach Andy Reid] knows that and tries to use his best plays of getting me the ball out in open space and making things work."
On one of the Super Bowl incompletions, the Chiefs lost a big play when Hardman broke off his route early. On another, he failed to stop his route when the ball came his way, almost resulting in an interception.
Mahomes seemed frustrated with Hardman. He said after the game that on occasion "the receivers were running routes to not where I thought they were going to be," and though he didn't name any specific player, it seems obvious he was referring to Hardman.
The Chiefs may decide they need to re-sign Watkins. They worked hard last year despite a tight salary cap situation to negotiate a reduced contract with Watkins. That was perhaps a reflection on what they thought of Hardman.
General manager Brett Veach indicated the Chiefs would like to work something out with Watkins again.
"Sammy is a big part of this offense and when he's healthy, we're better," general manager Brett Veach said. "If there's a way we can make it work again, we'll certainly try to do that. Love having him around."
If the Chiefs re-sign Watkins, it likely means another season for Hardman as a down-the-line receiving option, behind Hill, Kelce, Watkins and perhaps others.
"We've definitely got a lot of firepower, for sure," Hardman said. "My role? The type of guy to take advantage when the opportunity presents itself. I've got all the tools to do a lot of things, which I think everybody knows.
"I don't want to say [the opposing defense] forgets about me but it's like when there's so much attention on other certain other people, I might be one-on-one or I've got a jet sweep and they're not respecting it. Making that big play in a game to switch momentum or keep momentum going, I think that's my kind of X-factor moment in a game."