KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Mecole Hardman said he did no celebrating upon learning the Kansas City Chiefs traded fellow wide receiver Tyreek Hill. He called the loss of Hill "definitely a hit for sure," adding that Hill's mere presence opened chances for other Chiefs receivers.
But now that Hill is with the Miami Dolphins the situation in Kansas City isn't lost on Hardman. He's the Chiefs' only returning wide receiver with more than five catches last season, putting him in line for his biggest season at an opportune time in his career. He's going into the final year of his contract.
"The opportunity is bigger," said Hardman, who had 59 catches for 693 yards and two touchdowns in 2021. "It's up to the coaches, the coaching staff, to really see how they want to use me this year. It's up to me to be prepared for that.
"A once-in-a-generation type of player has left the team so somebody's got to step up and fill a role. ... I just want to be better than I was last year, get better as an overall receiver, kind of establish my name a little bit more. Catching the ball, running routes, yards after catch, everything I'm trying to improve on."
Hardman was the Chiefs' second-round draft pick in 2019. The Chiefs hoped he would provide a fast receiving option to Hill and tight end Travis Kelce.
But with Hill and Kelce around he's never been a consistent producer.
"I took advantage when I got my chance, even with everybody around," he said. "I think I did what I was supposed to do."
"I think whenever Mecole has gotten opportunities in this offense, whether it was when Tyreek had to go out or he would come in and run the routes that Tyreek ran, he would make plays happen," Mahomes said. "He made a lot of big plays in big moments, especially at the end of last season.
"For me it's for him to just continue to be himself. He doesn't have to be Tyreek Hill. He has to be Mecole Hardman and I think Mecole Hardman can be a great player in this offense. ... He can keep getting better and better. Everybody puts out there he's got to replace Tyreek. I think he can be his own player, a Pro Bowler and a great player in this offense as well. I think just him continuing to evolve, play hard and practice hard, he'll have a great season this year.”
"The one nice thing is we know what Mecole can do," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "We have a lot of confidence in what he can do. He's coming off a good year.
"Mecole has the speed like a Tyreek had. Different player, but like what Tyreek had. He gives you a nice skillset there with the speed and quickness and ability to run when the ball is in his hands. He's a very aggressive runner when the ball is in his hands. You find ways to do that in a variety of different ways.”
Sparking some of Hardman's optimism about this season is the way he finished the last one. He caught a 53-yard pass in a Week 17 game against the Cincinnati Bengals and then had the 103-yard game against the Broncos.
In the three playoff games, he averaged more than 15 yards per catch, rushed for 55 yards and scored two touchdowns.
"We kind of figured out what we should do when it comes to me as far as what time to get me a jet sweep, what time to get me a screen or when to come to me in certain situations," Hardman said. "Coming into this year, I'm pretty sure they're going to try to do something similar as to how it was at the end of the year."
Hardman is headed into the final season of the contract he signed as a rookie, something he said is "definitely a thought" as he prepares for the season. He's only 24 and could take command of the Chiefs' wide receiving group by having a big season and securing a new, long-term contract.
"In that situation, money talks, right?" Reid said when asked about his experience with players in their contract seasons. "They're all going to try their best to have their best year.
"You normally are going to get their best during those contract years, or at least that's what I've found. I know some people say guys tank when you're in the hunt of things. They're all in there going full speed. That's what I've seen."