ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- On one of the first plays of training camp last week, receiver Mecole Hardman did what the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him to do two years ago. He used his 4.33 40 speed to run down the left sideline and past cornerback DeAndre Baker to catch a deep ball from quarterback Patrick Mahomes in a 7-on-7 drill.
It was a nice start to what could be a key season for the third-year wide receiver.
"It's probably one of my most important seasons," Hardman said. "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."
Making more of the kind of plays he did early in camp isn't all Hardman needs to do to secure the playing time available after Sammy Watkins departed as a free agent. The Chiefs never seemed comfortable with him as a full-time player the past couple of seasons, often giving the playing time to others when Watkins was out of the lineup with injuries.
Mahomes has seemed frustrated with Hardman at times over two seasons, including during last season's Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So earning the trust that Hardman referred to seems essential for him as well.
"I like Mecole's work he put in in the offseason and the way he handled himself," coach Andy Reid said after the first day of 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."
Hardman continued to deliver big plays in subsequent practices. He got behind the secondary in a recent workout and caught a long pass from Mahomes. He lost a similar play in the same practice when cornerback Charvarius Ward recovered and broke up a deep pass at the last moment.
Plays like these have Mahomes thinking Hardman is a more reliable player this year.
"The maturity I guess you could say of how he practices, how he goes about his business, is completely different," Mahomes said. "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."
The Chiefs tried in free agency to sign a replacement for Watkins, most notably Pittsburgh's Juju Smith-Schuster. Ultimately, the Chiefs signed no replacement, signaling a trust in Hardman they hadn't previously shown.
"Somebody's got to fill in that spot, right?" Hardman said. "However the coaches go about giving those targets away is up to them. It's up to us three to fill in that void the best way we can."
Given the previous issues between Hardman and Mahomes, it seems natural that the two would have spent extra time working with one another during the offseason. Hardman said that never happened outside of practice.
"We have plenty of time in camp to get that chemistry down, that timing down," Hardman said. "It shouldn't be an issue.
"No pressure. I'm just going to come in and do my job and do what I need to do and get better as the days go by. Hopefully, that's enough to put me where I need to be."
In losing Watkins, the Chiefs will need to account for his 37 catches, 421 yards and two touchdowns elsewhere. Watkins missed six games in the regular season because of injuries.
"It's definitely going to be tough, but I definitely feel like as the season goes on, guys will begin to fill that void that Sammy was filling," Tyreek Hill said. "Having Pat, having [Travis] Kelce, having a great offensive line definitely helps because you've got other guys to mentor those guys. Mecole has played, [Robinson] has played in Super Bowls, Pringle [also], so I feel like we're going to be all right."
Hardman is not just first in the line to replace Watkins but the obvious candidate. He is a former second-round draft pick and has been groomed for this moment. Robinson has attracted little interest as a free agent in each of the past two years while Pringle joined the Chiefs after going undrafted.
So it's interesting that the Chiefs haven't committed the additional available playing time to Hardman. Reid said the Chiefs may fill the starting spot opposite Hill by committee.
"Mecole, Pringle, [Robinson], they all have had an opportunity to do it for us throughout their whole entire careers here, so we're counting on those guys to step up," offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. "And when it's all said and done with, we coach our guys, each and every one of them, to be the starter. So when it's all said and done with, these guys will be mentally as well as physically prepared to step up in any role that we foresee them to be in."