Kansas City Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman sits in the catbird seat to feast on a massive opportunity in 2021.
With Sammy Watkins leaving in free agency, Hardman is the logical choice to play third-fiddle in the Chiefs' offensive symphony behind Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. It's a gig K.C. envisioned Hardman playing when they drafted him in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
The 23-year-old speedster knows a big opportunity lies ahead. He said during training camp that to hit that ceiling this season, he first hopes to gain the "trust" and rapport with QB Patrick Mahomes.
"It's probably one of my most important seasons," Hardman said, via ESPN. "I think it's up to me personally to do what I need to do and take advantage of every opportunity that's given to me and gain the trust of the coaches, the rest of the staff and Pat and my teammates and just show them I can be a viable asset every Sunday or whatever day we're playing on.
"It's kind of that time to just take those challenges head-on and try to prove myself."
The Chiefs were reported to be in the mix on several free-agent receivers, including Pittsburgh's JuJu Smith-Schuster. They struck out on all accounts. Adding fifth-rounder Cornell Powell in the draft and re-signing Demarcus Robinson as the lone move in free agency left Hardman as the logical man to fill the WR2 role for the season.
Despite the dalliance in free agency to upgrade the receiver corps, coach Andy Reid said he believes Hardman can fill that role for the Chiefs.
"I like Mecole's work he put in in the offseason and the way he handled himself," Reid said early in training camp. "I like the way he came out today and what he did here. I look for good things from him.
"He'll keep getting better as he goes here. This will be a big camp for him."
Thus far, reports from Chiefs camp have been solid for Hardman's trajectory, including using his 4.33 speed to burn DBs deep several times.
The third-year pro finished third in receiving for K.C. in 2020, earning 560 yards on 41 catches with 4 TDs. There is a lot of room to grow. Hardman struggled against man coverage, failing to separate consistently from corners during his first two seasons. And the Chiefs' coaching staff seemed content to keep him in his part-time role. When Watkins dealt with injury, they often turned to Robinson or Byron Pringle to fill in. For example, in Super Bowl LV, with Watkins playing little due to injury, Hardman saw just 23 snaps. Robinson had 45 and Pringle 44.
With the full-time role up for grabs between the three WRs, Hardman enters the preseason with a leg-up. All reports out of Chiefs' camp indicate he's taking advantage of the chances thus far.
"The maturity I guess you could say of how he practices, how he goes about his business, is completely different," Mahomes said of Hardman. "We've always seen the talent. We've always seen the speed, the way he's able to make plays happen. But with him being so comfortable with the offense and just how we do things, I think it's going to take his game to another level."
If Hardman does take his game to the next level, an already dangerous Chiefs offense will have another field-stretching element for Mahomes to exploit on an every-down basis.