Vikings FA Fits: Mecole Hardman Can Complement Jefferson, Hockenson

Oct 23, 2022; Santa Clara, California, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) congratulates wide receiver Mecole Hardman (17) after Hardman scored a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers in the second quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Since the end of the season, there has been a fair bit of chatter about improving the receiver spot. Justin Jefferson, to be sure, will remain as Minnesota’s WR1. Adding T.J. Hockenson into the fold means the TE is the #2 pass catcher. The WR2 spot, though, has been a common source of debate since Adam Thielen’s production has slumped. That’s where Mecole Hardman (potentially) factors in.

October 23, 2022; Santa Clara, California, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (17) scores a touchdown against San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner (54) during the second quarter at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In a bit more than a week, Vikings fans will get the chance to see the Kansas City Chiefs pursue a Lombardi. If successful, it’ll be the second SB of Hardman’s still-young career. Unfortunately, it looks like he won’t be able to play.

The Basic Details: Mecole Hardman

  • 24 years old. 5’10”, 187 pounds.
  • 2019 2nd-round selection.
  • 5 starts (8 games played) in 2022.
  • 25 catches, 297 yards, and 4 touchdowns.
  • 68.2 PFF grade, 55th among receivers.

The Talk Around Town

PFF doesn’t include Hardman in their list of Top 100 Free Agents.

CBS lists the 24-year-old receiver as their 46th free agent:

Hardman has been a bright spot for the Chiefs in 2022, even if he’s played just eight games. he has six touchdowns this season (four receiving, two rushing) and is an elite return man when utilized. Used mostly has a gadget player, Hardman can be a deep-ball receiver in an offense that needs one. 

ESPN’s recently released free agents list but doesn’t have the KC receiver in it. The NFL’s list of 51 FAs doesn’t include Hardman, either.

In other words, the young speedster is fairly overlooked. Might that help Minnesota to secure his services if they’re interested in adding him to Kevin O’Connell’s offense?

The Fit in Minnesota

Jefferson has a gravitational pull on the opposition’s secondary. He’s constantly drawing double and triple teams, which speaks to his status as the sport’s best receiver. Just imagine if the Vikings offense had a WR2 who could really make teams pay for overcommitting to #18.

Now, I’ve said several times that K.J. Osborn is a very capable WR2. I maintain that position, especially following his strong conclusion to the season. Nevertheless, I do see the merit of adding a true speedster.

Reaction to Greatest Comeback in NFL History
Dec 17, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver K.J. Osborn. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Leading up to the draft, Mecole Hardman ran an elite 4.33 forty. As a rookie, Hardman averaged 20.7 yards per reception. Since then, Hardman’s averages are considerably more modest, but the capacity to take the top off the defense is intriguing. Jefferson thrives in intermediate routes; adding a speed demon to stretch the defense vertically will benefit everyone in Minnesota.

Making him even more suitable to the Vikings offense, perhaps, is that he can line up in the slot and out wide. Hardman had 155 snaps in both the slot and out wide in 2022. He also had 7 snaps in the backfield (a spot where Jefferson sometimes begins).

Even more appealing, as the CBS quote suggests, is that Hardman can run the ball. He had 4 carries in 2022; 3 of those carries went for first downs and 2 went for TDs. In some ways, then, Hardman may fill the role Jalen Reagor was supposed to fill. Reagor struggled to be a gadget player who challenges defenses deep. He also struggled as a punt returner, averaging a meagre 6.4 yards per return.

Questions Answered: Renewed Enthusiasm, the Jets, 2023 Cousins
Nov 24, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Jalen Reagor. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Hardman, in contrast, averaged 9.2 yards per punt return (though on only 6 attempts). Previously, he has made a difference as both a kickoff and punt returner, scoring a touchdown in each role since coming into the league. In fact, he was named a second-team All Pro as a rookie for his work as a kickoff returner.

In other words, Hardman has the potential to be a nice backup to Kene Nwangwu and then challenge Reagor for the punt return job.

Part of what makes his next contract challenging to project is that he’s coming off a year when he struggled with injury. It’s worth remembering, though, that he played in 16, 16, and then 17 games from 2019-2021.

Last year, his cap hit was $4,399,191. It was the final year of his rookie deal. Given the injury struggles, one wonders if he’ll be able to secure that much on the open market.

Assuming the price isn’t astronomical, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah may be able to get Hardman into a purple uniform on a somewhat modest 1-year deal. Doing so would allow the young receiver to re-establish what he can do so he can pursue a large deal next offseason.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference, PFF, and Over the Cap helped with this piece.

The FA Fits series is neither predictive nor prescriptive. The articles don’t predict who Minnesota will sign and nor do they prescribe who Minnesota should sign. Rather, they’re merely an exploration of the fit between upcoming free agents and Minnesota’s roster. So far, we have considered LB David Long and EDGE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.