The Kansas City Chiefs saw little-to-no drop in offensive production despite the 2022 offseason departure of Tyreek Hill, and fourth-year wideout Mecole Hardman played a role in keeping the unit humming along. But is Kansas City likely to retain Hardman as he’s set to hit the open market in the 2023 offseason? And what might a potential contract for Hardman may look like?
What Mecole Hardman Brings to the Chiefs
The Chiefs selected Hardman in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, hoping to pair the uber-fast receiver with Tyreek Hill to threaten defenses with speed unlike any NFL defense had yet seen. And while Hardman has been moderately productive through the first four years of his career, he’s yet to top 700 receiving yards in a single season and never developed into a full-time starter.
When he’s on the field, Hardman is always a homerun threat. His rookie season showed as much, as the University of Georgia product compiled a whopping 20.7 yards per reception across 26 catches on 41 targets for 538 yards and six touchdowns.
His speed is undeniable (he ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine), but inconsistencies in performance over the next three years and lack of diversity in his skill set have kept Hardman from reaching a Hill-like ceiling.
Across 57 appearances (as of this writing), Hardman has been called on to start just 26 times. His 2022 catch percentage of 73.5 is the best in his career but ranks just 47th in the NFL despite Hardman having one of the best passers in the league throwing him the rock.
Hardman’s yards per catch mark has also dropped precipitously since that explosive rookie season. His year-by-year averages are 20.7, 13.7, 11.7, and 11.9 from 2019-2022. In 2022, despite being the longest-tenured wideout on the team, Hardman was surpassed on the depth chart by free agent signees JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Hardman does, however, also add some gadget play benefits on the ground. In four seasons, he’s carried the ball 20 times for 125 yards and two scores.
All in all, the Hardman can be a dynamic contributor to Kansas City’s offense as a third or fourth option, but he’ll likely never be an every-down, No. 1 wide receiver.
What Could Mecole Hardman’s New Contract Look Like?
Gauging the value of Hardman’s 2023 contract is tricky because the value he could provide to a team will likely vary widely based on the type of offense and coaching staff he’d join. In Kansas City, with arguably the best play-caller-quarterback combo in the league in Andy Reid and Mahomes, Hardman is in one of the best possible environments to maximize his downfield ability and game-breaking speed.
But Hardman isn’t a possession receiver or the guy you’re going to count on to bring down the tough catches on third down. That’s not to say he can’t be a valuable contributor elsewhere, but he’d fit best in a pass-first offense that allows him to take advantage of his best attribute: his speed.
The fourth-year pro is likely looking at a shorter-term deal that lines up with his status as a team’s WR3 or WR4.
Hardman’s Market Value in the 2023 Free Agent Class
The current pool of talent, or lack thereof, in the 2023 wide receiver free agent class helps Hardman’s case in looking for a lucrative deal. Scarcity breeds value, and Hardman’s primary competitors on the market include the likes of Allen Lazard, Jakobi Meyers, Darius Slayton, DJ Chark, and fellow Chiefs pass catcher Smith-Schuster. These are good players, but there’s no one here who’d break the bank in an average free-agency cycle.
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If there are WR-needy teams who are desperate to import fresh faces, Hardman could capitalize. That said, accumulating barely over 2,000 yards across four seasons will only take one so far. Hardman’s new deal will likely fall in the $8-$11 million range, though the impending rise of the salary cap could inflate that projection.
That would put Hardman contractually on par with the likes of Zay Jones, Valdes-Scantling, and Russell Gage, players who had similar production over the lifetime of their respective rookie contracts. Spotrac.com has Hardman’s projected market value at $11 million, with him slated to land a deal similar to Curtis Samuel’s three-year, $34.5M contract with the Washington Commanders.
Kansas City Chiefs’ Options at Wide Receiver in 2023
The Chiefs are set to lose three of their top 2022 contributors at wide receiver to free agency in 2023. Hardman, Smith-Schuster, and Justin Watson are all set to hit the open market.
Leading the team’s depth chart before any additional acquisitions are made will be 2022 second-round draft pick Skyy Moore, 2022 trade acquisition and Kadarius Toney, and Valdes-Scantling, who still has two years remaining on the three-year, $30 million deal he signed with the team in the 2022 offseason.
With superstar tight end Travis Kelce set to turn 34 during the 2023 season, Kansas City will be looking to ensure it has depth at the pass-catching positions. That could incentivize the team to keep Hardman around, but it already has plenty of salary cap space tied up elsewhere, particularly because Mahomes’ cap hit balloons to over $46 million next season.
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The Chiefs are currently set to have just over $28 million in cap space in 2023 before contract extensions or cap casualty roster cuts are made.
With that in mind, I believe it’s likely Kansas City chooses to instead look to the NFL Draft to supplement the position instead of allocating a multi-year deal to a player who, based on his draft capital and potential, has somewhat disappointed across his four seasons with the team.
If Hardman is willing to take a discount on a short-term deal to stay with the team that drafted him, it’s possible that he sticks around. This would be especially true if he’s hoping to parlay a short-term deal into greater production and a more lucrative contract down the road. But if he’s looking to cash in with more security now, he probably won’t be staying in Kansas City.