The New York Jets appear to have bigger plans for Mecole Hardman
When news broke that the New York Jets had signed Mecole Hardman to a one-year, $4.5 million contract ($4.08 million guaranteed), many initially expected Hardman to take on the role of Braxton Berrios in the New Yorker would take the offensive.
It was a reasonable assumption. By the time Hardman was signed, Berrios had already been fired and signed to the Miami Dolphins, while Hardman’s role in Kansas City was similar to what Berrios played in New York. Both players are known for their breakaway speed and were primarily tasked with 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 part of the reason Hardman signed with the Jets was because “they promised he could expand his route tree on their offense.” skills”.
At league meetings in March, Jets head coach Robert Saleh praised Hardman’s route running and said the team wants to fulfill its potential in that area.
“I think he’s an underrated route runner,” Saleh said of Hardman. “We will try to help him to become even better. I think he still has a lot of strength and still has a lot of higher goals to achieve as we continue to develop his advanced distance running skills.”
What new roles could the Jets envision for Hardman? And should the Jets give him these new responsibilities? Or should they play it safe and limit him to the things they already know he’s good at?
To get an idea of why the Jets are intrigued by Hardman’s potential in areas outside of the design touch game, let’s take a look at the numbers behind his Kansas City career. We’ll examine his role with the Chiefs and see if we can find specific areas where he’s shown potential.
Mecole Hardman’s role in Kansas City was very similar to Braxton Berrios’ role with the Jets
While the Jets may plan to expand Hardman’s role, it should be noted that Hardman is perfectly suited to simply filling Berrios’ old role with the Jets — if they wish. Hardman’s use in Kansas City was not significantly different from Berrios’ use in New York.
Out of 140 qualified wide receivers (at least 100 routes run), Hardman’s route tree was the ninth most similar to Berrios’ route tree, according to NFL Next Gen Stats in 2022.
Below is a comparison of Berrios’ route type distribution to 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, for example Berrios ran far more inclines than Hardman while Hardman ran far more posts. But in each of the five most common route types, Berrios and Hardman were very close. Both players ran fewer go routes, hitch routes, and in routes than most other receivers, while they both finished in the top five on crossing routes and slightly above average on out routes.
You can also see that Berrios and Hardman each ranked in the top half of both the flats and screens, although Berrios was much more focused on those routes. Berrios ran a flat or screen run on 15.8% of his routes (5th), compared to just 7.6% for Hardman (49th).
The table above perfectly summarizes the roles of these two players. They were primarily asked to run routes that naturally enabled them to make easy catches and gain yards after the catch. They were seldom asked to run courses where the receiver had to win with precise course running technique – the low frequency of ups and downs in courses is the best example of this.
What types of routes might Hardman have untapped potential on?
While Hardman’s role overall was very similar to Berrios’ role, the chart above shows that Hardman was already being used in a more comprehensive way than Berrios.
As we said, Berrios ran the fifth-highest rate of flats and screens (two types of routes that require little to no route-running skill) at a whopping 15.8% of his routes, while Hardman’s rate was less than half that at 7.6% Sign. Hardman has done a lot more work than Berrios in non-gadget areas.
The mail route was the main route on which Hardman overtook Berrios. Hardman ranked 17th out of 140 wide receivers in 2022 with a post-route frequency of 11.9%. Berrios was 126th with 5.1%.
This shows Hardman’s ability to bring in a vertical element that Berrios couldn’t. That’s because of something my co-host Ben Blessington pointed out on the last Cool Your Jets episode: While Berrios is fast, Hardman’s speed is on a whole different level.
The numbers back it up. Hardman is responsible for the third-fastest top speed set by a receiver in the last three seasons, 21.87 mph, which he set in that game.
Due to his class-leading breakaway speed, post routes are one of the main areas where Hardman has untapped potential. It’s a deep route, contrary to Saleh’s explicit mention of intermediate routes, but it’s still an interesting additional element that Hardman could add on top of his already impressive influence in the area below.
Despite the high frequency with which he ran mail routes, Hardman was rarely the target of mail routes in Kansas City. Hardman has been on 14 post routes in four years with the Chiefs, for a total of 152 post routes. That’s a target rate of 9.2%, which is quite low.
For comparison, in 2022, the average goal rate for wide receivers on mail routes in the league was 14.3%. At that rate, Hardman would have been targeted 22 times instead of 14 across 152 routes. He was essentially eight times less targeted than expected.
On the rare occasions he’s been targeted on a mail route, Hardman has delivered great results. He has caught 7 of 14 post routes for 212 yards and a touchdown for an overall EPA (Expected Points Added) of 15.3. His averages of 15.1 yards per goal and 1.09 EPA per goal were both significantly better than league averages for wide receivers on mail routes in 2022 (12.5 and .35).
The most unique aspect of Hardman’s performance on post routes is how deep he goes when aiming on those routes. At his average post-route target, Hardman was 30.5 yards underfield when the ball landed. That’s more than eight yards more than the 2022 league average (22.1).
Here, Hardman scores a 42-yard touchdown on a corner post route out of the slot, all 42 yards flying through the air.
Giving Hardman a few more targets on mail routes could be a great way to expand his non-gadget repertoire. It doesn’t have to be extreme — just two or three more goals over the course of a season could result in the odd game-changing touchdown bombshell.
Staying in the deep part of the field, the corner route is another route where Hardman has shown potential.
Despite being a small sample, Hardman was extremely effective on curved routes. Hardman caught 5 of 8 corners for 164 yards and a touchdown during his Chiefs career for an overall EPA of 13.2. He averaged 20.5 yards per goal and 1.65 EPA per goal, beating league averages of 10.2 and .36 in 2022.
That 48-yard touchdown at Foxborough came from a corner route.
However, just like mail routes, Hardman was rarely targeted on corner routes. While he was actually attacked on 16.3% of his turning routes (higher than the 2022 position average of 13.3%), he only ran an extremely small number of turning routes. Hardman ran just 49 corner routes in his entire Chiefs career. Unlike post routes, corner routes are not something that Kansas City requests from Hardman on a regular basis.
It’s worth noting that a receiver’s lack of targets is often due to inconsistent routing rather than underloading from the offensive. Perhaps Hardman wasn’t often targeted at post routes because he didn’t win those routes very often, and perhaps he didn’t run many corner routes because the Chiefs felt he wasn’t winning often enough to warrant more chances.
If these things are true, then it only adds to the credibility of Saleh’s comments. Saleh has not expressly guaranteed anything to Hardman. All he said was that the Jets “want to try and help him get a lot better.” [as a route runner].”
Saleh was particularly enthusiastic about Hardman’s potential. We can see Hardman’s potential in the eye-popping results he got from aiming – a product of his elite speed. But to achieve a greater number of goals he needs to improve his consistency as a route runner, and the Jets seem keen to work with him on that.