The New York Jets seem to have bigger things planned for Mecole Hardman
When it was announced that the New York Jets signed Mecole Hardman to a one-year, $4.5 million deal ($4.08 million guaranteed), many people initially expected that Hardman was added to take over Braxton Berrios’ role in New York’s offense.
It was a reasonable assumption. By the time Hardman was signed, Berrios had already been cut and signed with the Miami Dolphins, while Hardman’s role in Kansas City was similar to the one Berrios played in New York. Both players are known for their breakaway speed and have primarily been asked to handle gadget plays such as screens, end arounds, and jet sweeps.
However, the Jets’ initial comments on Hardman suggest they want to use him as more than just a gadget guy.
ESPN’s Rich Cimini reported that Hardman signed with the Jets in part because “they promised he’d be able to expand his route tree in their offense.” Cimini specifically stated that the Jets “believe he has untapped ability on intermediate routes.”
Speaking at the league meetings in March, Jets head coach Robert Saleh praised Hardman’s route running and said the team wants to tap into his potential in that area.
“I think he’s an underrated route runner,” Saleh said of Hardman. “It’s something that we’re going to try to help him get a lot better at. I think he still has a lot of juice and a heck of a higher ceiling to reach as we develop the intermediate route running skills of his.”
Robert Saleh on what Mecole Hardman brings to the offense:
— Jets Videos (@snyjets) March 27, 2023
What new responsibilities could the Jets have in mind for Hardman? And should the Jets give him those new responsibilities? Or should they play it safe and restrict him to the things they already know he can do well?
To get an idea of why the Jets are intrigued by Hardman’s potential in areas outside of the designed-touch game, let’s dive into the numbers behind his Kansas City career. We’ll explore his role with the Chiefs and see if we can find any particular areas where he showed potential.
Mecole Hardman’s role in Kansas City was very close to Braxton Berrios’ role with the Jets
While the Jets may be planning to expand Hardman’s role, it should be noted that Hardman is perfectly suited to simply fill Berrios’ old role with the Jets – if they wish to do that. Hardman’s usage in Kansas City was not much different from Berrios’ usage in New York.
Among 140 qualified wide receivers (min. 100 routes run), Hardman’s route tree was the ninth-most similar to Berrios’ route tree in 2022, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Seen below is a comparison of Berrios’ route-type distribution versus Hardman’s route-type distribution. Shown is the percentage of each player’s passing-game snaps in which they were asked to run each route type (as tracked by NGS).
Berrios and Hardman were separated in some of the less common route types, such as Berrios running far more slants than Hardman while Hardman ran far more posts. But in each of the top five most common route types, Berrios and Hardman ranked very closely. Both players ran fewer go routes, hitch routes, and in routes than most other receivers, while they were both top-five in crossing routes and slightly above average in out routes.
You can also see that Berrios and Hardman each ranked in the top half of both flats and screens, although Berrios leaned into these routes much more heavily. Berrios ran a flat or screen on 15.8% of his routes (5th) compared to just 7.6% for Hardman (49th).
The chart above perfectly encapsulates the roles played by these two players. They were primarily asked to run routes that naturally placed them in a position to make easy catches and gain yards after the catch. They were infrequently asked to run routes that require the receiver to win with precise route-running technique – their low frequencies of hitch and in routes are the best examples of this.
In which route types might Hardman have untapped potential?
While Hardman’s role was very similar to Berrios’ role overall, the chart above shows that Hardman was already being used in a more expansive fashion than Berrios.
As we said, Berrios ran the fifth-highest rate of flats and screens (two route types that require little-to-no route running skills) at a whopping 15.8% of his routes, while Hardman’s rate of 7.6% was less than half of that mark. Hardman handled a lot more work than Berrios in non-gadget areas.
The post route was the primary route where Hardman outpaced Berrios. Hardman ranked 17th out of 140 wide receivers with a post route frequency of 11.9% in 2022. Berrios was 126th at 5.1%.
This shows that Hardman is capable of bringing a vertical element that Berrios did not. It’s because of something my co-host Ben Blessington pointed out in the most recent Cool Your Jets episode: while Berrios is fast, Hardman’s speed is at a whole different level.
The numbers bear that out. Hardman is responsible for the third-fastest maximum speed reached by a receiver over the past three seasons, which was the 21.87 miles per hour he reached on this play.
Because of his elite breakaway speed, post routes are one of the main areas where Hardman has untapped potential. It’s a deep route, contrary to Saleh’s specific mention of intermediate routes, but it’s still an intriguing extra element that Hardman could sprinkle on top of his already-impressive impact in the underneath area.
Despite his high frequency of running post routes, Hardman rarely ever got targeted on post routes in Kansas City. Hardman was targeted on 14 post routes over four years with the Chiefs, spanning across 152 total post routes. That’s a target rate of 9.2%, which is quite low.
For comparison, the league-average target rate for wide receivers on post routes was 14.3% in 2022. At that rate, over 152 routes, Hardman would have been targeted 22 times instead of 14. He was essentially targeted eight fewer times than expected.
In the rare occasions he was targeted on a post route, Hardman has delivered great results. He’s caught 7-of-14 post routes for 212 yards and one touchdown, generating 15.3 total EPA (Expected Points Added). His averages of 15.1 yards per target and 1.09 EPA per target were both significantly better than the league averages for wide receivers on post routes in 2022 (12.5 and 0.35).
The most unique aspect of Hardman’s production on post routes is how deep he gets when he is targeted on those routes. On his average post route target, Hardman was 30.5 yards downfield when the ball arrived. That is more than eight yards further than the 2022 league average (22.1).
Here, Hardman scores a 42-yard touchdown on a corner-post route out of the slot, with all 42 yards coming through the air.
Giving Hardman a few more targets on post routes could be a great way to expand his non-gadget repertoire. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme – just two or three more targets over the course of a season could lead to a game-changing touchdown bomb or two.
Staying in the deep part of the field, another route where Hardman has displayed potential is the corner route.
While it’s a small sample, Hardman has been highly effective on corner routes. Hardman caught 5-of-8 corners in his Chiefs career for 164 yards and one touchdown, generating 13.2 total EPA. He averaged 20.5 yards per target and 1.65 EPA per target, scorching the 2022 league averages of 10.2 and 0.36.
This 48-yard touchdown in Foxborough came on a corner route.
Just like post routes, though, Hardman was rarely targeted on corner routes. While he was actually targeted on 16.3% of his corner routes (greater than the 2022 positional average of 13.3%), he ran an extremely small number of corner routes. Hardman only ran 49 corner routes in his entire Chiefs career. Contrary to post routes, corner routes are not something Kansas City asked Hardman to do on a frequent basis.
It’s worth noting that a receiver’s lack of targets is often due to inconsistent route running rather than underutilization by the offense. Perhaps Hardman wasn’t targeted often on post routes because he didn’t win those routes very often, and perhaps he didn’t run many corner routes because the Chiefs didn’t think he’d win often enough to warrant more opportunities.
If these things are true, then it only adds more credence to Saleh’s comments. Saleh did not explicitly guarantee anything for Hardman. All he said is that the Jets want to “try to help him get a lot better [as a route runner].”
The main thing Saleh did is rave about Hardman’s potential. We can see Hardman’s potential through the gaudy results he generated when targeted – a product of his elite speed. But to earn a larger quantity of targets, he will have to improve his consistency as a route runner, and that’s what the Jets seem eager to work with him on.