Throughout the college football season and pre-draft process, multiple quick slot receiver types have made waves in the NFL Draft community. Early in the season, Marquise Brown generated first-round buzz. Throughout the pre-draft process, Parris Campbell has asserted himself.
If I were an NFL decision-maker, I would take Mecole Hardman over both, and a whole host of others.
Hardman, a Georgia product, was apart of a deep group of skill players in the Bulldogs offense. Despite being a dynamic ball carrier, he only accumulated 73 touches over the past two seasons. What did he do with those touches? Average 16.0 yards per reception, 7.5 yards per rush and post 13 touchdowns. Last season, he averaged over 20 yards per punt return.
Hardman is a natural ball carrier in space and close quarters, with elite acceleration to get around the edge. When Georgia got him the ball in space, good things happened:
Hardman’s flexibility, burst and balance make him a difficult tackle, especially for defenders who don’t possess his quickness (which few do). He’ll ruin an angle or hit a cutback in the blink of an eye:
His punt return average wasn’t the result of some revolutionary scheme employed by Georgia. Hardman’s shiftiness and ability to shoot out of a cannon allowed to hit creases that others could only dream of hitting:
What separates Hardman from comparable receivers, in my eyes, is his vertical receiving prowess. While his 4.33s forty-yard dash is impressive, there are others who posted similar times. The difference is that few receivers possess Hardman’s ability to process coverages.
In this example against Missouri in 2018, Hardman was given a free release off the line of scrimmage. As he gets vertical in his stem, he’s being matched solo by the safety. Watch his fake to the corner before breaking back to the skinny post. Keeping his break skinny is key, as he couldn’t get eyes on the boundary safety. If his break is too defined towards the middle of the field, there would be no way of knowing if he’s running into coverage.
In the previous example, Hardman recognized the safeties leverage and used a bit of an exaggerated double move to create separation. However, he’s not one to waste motion or moves when it’s not necessary. In that sense, he runs routes with a plan and conviction. Get matched up with a linebacker? He’s going to run right by him:
No matter the level of athlete Hardman is facing, he has the explosive to get behind them and finish plays. In last year’s national championship game, Hardman was matched up with Alabama’s Tony Brown in man coverage to the slot right. Brown is fresh off a season where he appeared in 11 games for the Packers, and ran a 4.35s forty-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Hardman closes down on Brown’s cushion, moves laterally and wins over the top:
Now comes the rest of the route tree, which is easier to operate in when defensive backs have to first respect you down the field. On the following play, Hardman knows he’s got man coverage because of how the defense reacted to his pre-snap motion. His inside stem gave him extra space towards the sideline, allowing him to accelerate out of his break with enough real estate to make an adjustment to the ball. Then, on course, we see his ability as a ball carrier once again:
What Mecole Hardman was able to accomplish in limited reps speaks to his ceiling, versatility and playmaking at the next level. At the very worst, he’s a player who you want to get the ball to in space and in the return game. With his vertical route running and speed, he likely doubles as a receiver who can take the top off the defense. His route tree isn’t totally complete, but has shown a ton of promise in that area.
Hardman will be an exciting weapon in the slot for whichever team drafts him, projecting as a dynamic complimentary piece for a potentially elite offense.