Can Mecole Hardman replace Tyreek Hill in Chiefs’ offense? That’s not his objective

Earlier this week, his right arm immobilized by a sling, Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill approached rookie Mecole Hardman to offer a few words of encouragement. The dialogue has been ongoing since the two teammates met over the offseason, Hardman searching for advice about playing the position at an elite level.

The takeaway for Hardman this week stuck out.

Be yourself.

With Hill’s injury sidelining him indefinitely, Hardman is among the contingent of players tasked with replacing him.

But not being him.

“I’m always myself. I don’t try to clone anybody,” Hardman said. “I just want to play my game and do what I’m capable of doing and not try to imitate anybody else. He’s a great player. Not too many people, if anybody, can do what he does on the field. I just want to be myself and do what I do.”

On paper, it would seem to be a natural transition to turn to Hardman or De’Anthony Thomas in Hill’s absence. Thomas is returning from a one-game suspension this week. After all, their most noticeable attribute is their speed, and who is faster than Tyreek Hill?

But Hill has developed into much more than a one-trick player. He accounted for 1,479 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.

Hardman’s first opportunity with Hill injured left him wanting more. He played 53 snaps. Targeted once.

He dropped the pass.

“I got in there more than I thought I would,” Hardman said. “The good thing is I learned a lot from it. I can look at the film and build on it. (There are) just some little details that can get me better — like my pre-snap stuff before the play starts.”

Hardman found himself open on a couple of plays in Jacksonville, but other options were even more open, and they drew the pass from quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

He drew only one, a throw in the flat to Mahomes’ right. Though slightly off-target, it was a catchable ball that fell to the ground.

“I gotta step up and do more,” Hardman said. “All of us gotta step up. Tyreek has a big role here. He’s a (big) asset to this offense. All of us gotta step up and play better than we can.”

He will have the opportunity. Even with Thomas returning from suspension, Hardman projects to receive a significant number of snaps, in addition to handling kick returning duties. He beat out Tremon Smith for the latter job in the opener in Jacksonville.

It’s a lot to ask early in his career. On Sunday, after destroying Jacksonville’s defense, wide receiver Sammy Watkins said a second season in coach Andy Reid’s offense made all the difference.

Hardman is approaching just his second game.

“You don’t have them very long in this day and age, with free agency and all that. If they can play, we exploit their talents,” Reid said. “Get them in there. Cut them loose and let them go.”

If they’re ready, he emphasized.

The Chiefs used a second-round pick on Hardman after his film at Georgia stood out. He impressed in the preseason.

But even he acknowledged the Week 1 opener offered a different game speed than he’s ever been a part of. It will require an adjustment.

“I think every game you play, you’re going to have butterflies and nerves to go out there and play,” Hardman said. “But when the ball is snapped, it all goes away, and you’re just ready to play ball.”

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