Mecole Hardman can help the New York Jets exploit Bill Belichick’s man-coverage defense
Currently ranked 29th in points per drive (1.18), 31st in third-down conversion rate (26.1%), and 31st in red-zone touchdown rate (25.0%), the New York Jets offense is desperately searching for a spark.
They have a potential solution patiently waiting on the bench: Mecole Hardman. The Jets’ 2023 free-agent pickup has only played 14 offensive snaps through the first two games. All 14 of those snaps came in garbage time against the Cowboys. Hardman is yet to play a snap while the outcome is still in doubt.
It’s true that Hardman has limitations in his game that should preclude the Jets from using him too much. He is drop-prone and has not been a consistently effective route-runner in the NFL. Robert Saleh‘s insistence in the offseason that the Jets planned to unlock new elements of his game always seemed like far-fetched embellishment for the media.
“I think he’s an underrated route runner,” Saleh said of Hardman in March, shortly after the Jets signed him. “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.”
The fact that Hardman has played zero non-garbage time snaps through two games is proof that Saleh was probably exaggerating. It never seemed plausible that the Jets actually believed Hardman had untapped potential after Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes of all people couldn’t unlock it.
With that being said, it never seemed as if the Jets planned to completely shun Hardman from their offense – especially after Corey Davis’ late retirement vacated more snaps for the wide receiver room.
With his elite speed and top-notch production on gadget plays, there is a place for Hardman in any NFL offense. The Jets’ utter refusal to use Hardman is shocking, and it’s difficult to justify barring any behind-the-scenes happenings we do not know about.
The Jets’ excuses for Hardman’s lack of usage are sketchy, to say the least. Earlier this week, Nathaniel Hackett claimed it is due to the Jets’ lack of plays on offense.
Nathaniel Hackett says the lack of Mecole Hardman's touches is related to the lack of plays the Jets have had on offense. #Jets
— Antwan V. Staley (@antwanstaley) September 21, 2023
That doesn’t answer the question. Whether the Jets ran 10 plays or 100, Hardman still wouldn’t have been out there, because he is playing zero percent of the snaps. That’s what the problem is; the total number of plays has nothing to do with it.
Clearly, there’s something going on that the coaches do not want to discuss publicly. Regardless of what the true explanation is, it’s time to let bygones be bygones and make things right. The Jets need to start getting Hardman some snaps – and this is the perfect week to do it.
Hardman’s skill set makes him an ideal weapon to utilize against the New England Patriots defense.
In fact, Hardman has already proven he matches up well against New England. Hardman has played two games against the Patriots in his career, and he scored a touchdown in both games, helping Kansas City go 2-0.
Mecole Hardman scored a TD in each of his 2 career games against the Patriots.
Both punishing them for man coverage.
1st TD, gets a 1v1 in the slot and wins on a corner route.
2nd TD, goes in motion pre-snap and that gives him a step on his man.
Needs to be involved tomorrow pic.twitter.com/mFccIm5Ssx
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) September 23, 2023
As I described in the tweet, both of Hardman’s touchdowns exploited New England’s trademark emphasis on man coverage.
On the first touchdown, Hardman got a one-on-one matchup in the slot and used his vertical speed to separate on a corner route. On the second, the Chiefs gave Hardman leverage over his defender by putting him pre-snap motion, making the Patriots pay for having someone follow Hardman (man coverage) instead of passing him off (as they would if it were zone).
Overall, across his two games against New England, Hardman caught 5-of-5 targets for 75 yards, two touchdowns, and one first down. He didn’t even have to play a lot of snaps to make that impact. Between the two games, Hardman played 29.6% of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps.
A similar percentage is all the Jets need to give Hardman on Sunday. With even just 30% of the snaps, Hardman should have a good chance of breaking loose for at least one huge play that can alter the Jets’ fortunes.
Finding answers for New England’s man coverage looks will be crucial for the Jets tomorrow afternoon. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Patriots had the NFL’s sixth-highest man coverage rate in 2022 at 36.0%, and so far in 2023, their rate is nearly identical at 35.8%.
New England tends to use even more man coverage against Zach Wilson. Across two games against the Jets last season, the Patriots used man coverage 40.6% of the time.
Hardman has proven in his two matchups against New England that he can be used as a creative answer against man coverage. That’s not to say he should be a focal point of the offense who is relied upon to consistently win one-on-one routes, but if Hackett can scheme him into a handful of favorable situations that suit his skill set, his speed can punish the Patriots for playing aggressive man coverage.
In addition, the Jets can assist their run game simply by placing Hardman on the field. The mere threat of his speed can help spread defenses out and open up lanes for the running backs. Putting Hardman in pre-snap motion is a smart way to clear out some of the loaded boxes New England is likely to throw at the Jets.
It’s hard to find a good reason why the Jets shouldn’t start involving Hardman in the offense going forward. Considering how well he matches up against New England, there may not be a better team to integrate him against. The Jets have a great opportunity to finally start utilizing their fastest offensive player.
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