Draft Mecole Hardman In Every Single Fantasy Football League
Draft Mecole Hardman In Every Single Fantasy Football League
“I like him better in best-ball.”
You have heard this before. You have read this before. Hell, you have SAID this before about a variety of volatile wide receivers. Will Fuller, Marvin Jones, Christian Kirk, every secondary Saints wide receiver of all time and of course, Mecole Hardman are all names that get lumped into this “better in best ball” group of players.
The fact is, the difference between best ball and weekly management in terms of the types of pass-catchers we should be targeting is really not all that different. We should always be wanting to maximize ceilings and with every round deeper you get in a draft, the more true that maxim becomes. Players with absurd ceilings are always valuable even if we can’t put them in a neat box of projected volume at the beginning of the season.
In Hardman’s case, his ceiling as the third or second option in the Chiefs passing game makes him appealing regardless of any other context. Despite winning the Super Bowl last year, the Chiefs had a very odd regular season in which only one player (Travis Kelce) saw more than 90 targets. Sammy Watkins had 90 exactly and Tyreek Hill had 89. Demarcus Robinson chipped in with 55 and Hardman played only 44% of the teams’ offensive snaps and recorded 41 targets. That weird target mix, the addition of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the departure of Blake Bell/LeSean McCoy leave the 2020 Chiefs target shares extremely open to interpretation.
Our hypothesis is not only that Hardman is bound to be wildly efficient on the targets he does get but that he is likely to earn a larger share of those targets than the market expects.
Before diving deep into the morass of why Hardman is poised to see more targets (and therefore score more fantasy points) than expected in 2020, these are the list of all players in the last decade to score six or more receiving touchdowns at the age of 21:
Every player on that list has posted at least one WR1 season in the future except for Sammy Watkins who would have in 2015 (his sophomore season) had he been able to play more than 13 games. It is worth noting that Hardman has never missed a game for injury in his football career. Cooper, Evans, and Allen all have posted multiple WR1 seasons after their semi-breakout rookie years. What this tells us is that young, efficient wide receivers tend to improve on their results as opposed to indicating some sort of “fluke”.
Blair Andrews investigated further into the exploitable relationship between WR age and opportunity to show that it is one of the biggest edges fn fantasy. Blair found that “Receivers who play their entire rookie season at age 21 and score at least 100 points see an average increase of over 20 targets in Year 2. No other age cohort sees a positive increase.”
Blair furthered his findings (and our Mecole Hardman case) by noting:
“Players who score at least 100 points while playing their entire rookie years at age 21, and who don’t miss their entire second season with injury average a win rate above 10%, something no other age cohort manages to do.”
The only player in ADP right now to meet all of Mr. Andrews’ criteria is, of course, Mecole Hardman.
The Path To Targets
The reason why some drafters are shying away from Hardman is that they are having a hard time drawing a clear path to a 100+ target season. Starting from the very top, we should reasonably expect the Chiefs to lead the league, or come close, in pass attempts. If we exclude the Denver game in which Mahomes left injured, he averaged 36.3 pass attempts per game. That would have ranked as the eight-most pass attempts per game in the NFL last season.
The raw stats do not tell the whole story, however. Even including the Matt Moore games, the Chiefs were the most situation-neutral pass-heavy team in all of football and it wasn’t close. Riley McAtee posted a great article on The Ringer about the Chiefs absolute lack of offensive balance and included this in his findings:
McAtee furthers his claims by noting “the Chiefs weren’t just the most pass-heavy team of the 2019 season—they were one of the most pass-heavy teams this century (and, therefore, probably ever.)” Only the 2013 Saints were more pass-heavy in neutral situations than the Chiefs. If the Chiefs play in high rate of close or mostly-competitive games in 2020, their pass attempt numbers could be truly ridiculous.
No one with a brain would argue that isn’t the best offense to be a fantasy pass catcher in. In addition to Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy’s pass-heavy play-calling, We know that Patrick Mahomes is the most talented (and therefore, efficient) quarterback in the league. Since the beginning of 2019, Mahomes has 10 more passing touchdowns than every other QB and leads the NFL in yards per pass attempt by over .1 yards.
Part of the answer to “where do the targets come from” is that we don’t need to find *that* many more targets for Hardman to become a stud for fantasy. The second WR in Mahomes’ offense has been a divided role the last two seasons with Tyreek being injured, and Chris Conley/DeMarcus Robinson/Hardman/Sammy Watkins splitting that role while he was healthy but basically all of these players except Watkins has been extremely efficient on a per-target basis. While Mahomes has been the quarterback, there hasn’t evolved a clear hierarchy behind Kelce and Hill, though that is not to say that we couldn’t see one develop eventually.
For Hardman to be a league-winner in 2020, a few things have to happen. He does have to earn that increase in targets hinted at in Blair’s article. The first part of that path is DeMarcus Robinson declining from his 735 snaps (70% of snaps) to more like 25-35% of the team’s snaps. This seems more probable than improbable given how efficient Hardman was last season. Second, Blake Bell’s 435 departed snaps in which the Chiefs ran out of 12 personnel need to be transitioned, at least partially, to 11 personnel. This eliminates the snap crunch between Watkins and Hardman that much to my chagrin, does exist.
The final hurdle for Hardman is just to straight-up beat out Sammy Watkins for playing time. Despite renegotiating his deal, the Chiefs actually need Hardman to beat out Watkins this year so they can move on from Watkins’ oversized contract due to how stretched-thin Kansas City’s salary cap is. Watkins was stunningly inconsistent last year, having his only 100-yard game in the season opener (with three touchdowns) and posting sub-50% catch rates in half of the Chiefs’ regular-season games. Then, he exploded against the Titans in the AFC Conference Championship with 7-114-1 and notched 5-98 in the Super Bowl. Sammy Watkins is a weird dude with an infinite range of outcomes, after pondering retirement in the offseason, tweeting about aliens, and then taking a contract restructuring to stay in KC and catch passes from Mahomes.
Can Hardman beat out Watkins straight up? Absolutely. Will he? History suggests that players like Hardman are more likely than not to earn a substantial increase in target share year-over-year after a 100+ PPR fantasy point season. Teams have a vested interest in getting second-round picks, like Hardman, who perform well at a controlled cost on to the field as much as possible. There are also some other tertiary ways Hardman could see more playing time this year (CoVid-19 opt-outs, Kelce/Tyreek injuries, or suspensions) that play small parts in this equation.
Even if you agree with all of the above sentiment, that Hardman can beat out Watkins, that we should expect him to be efficient because he plays in the best passing offense in football with the best QB, you still might think you “prefer Hardman in best ball”. While any player who is going to have spiked weeks is going to seem a little better in best ball, the goal is still to access ceiling with our selections particularly after the first 50 or so picks go off the board and many players project similarly.
The fact is, week to week WR scoring is more variant than we like to admit. We tend to think that we can safely draft wide receivers in rounds five through nine but even those “safe” players have more variance in their outcomes.
Let’s take a look at two “safe” wide receiver picks, Jarvis Landry and Julian Edelman who are going close to Mecole Hardman in high-stakes ADP using the Rotoviz Stat Explorer.
Landry had a solid 2019, finishing as the WR14 but only posting six games as a WR2 or better with more WR3 games than not.
Edelman had a truly studly year with 153 targets, 1,117 yards, and six touchdowns while finishing as the WR14. Yet, even Edelman had six weeks as WR3 or worse in perhaps the most stable point distribution in all of fantasy football wide receivers.
This is a long-winded way of saying something that we all intuitively know: predicting WR scoring from week to week is really difficult and we overrate our ability to do so. If you grant that central conceit than simply drafting players who when you DO start them have massive ceilings is imperative. There is also the added bonus with Hardman that he likely won’t need as many interactions as someone like Edelman or Landry to “get there” on a weekly basis as he projects to have a massive Average Depth Of Target.
Put simply, there are few players in fantasy drafts who offer the value proposition that Hardman does. If he earns the wholly expected increase of playing time that we expect from a second-pick who scored 100+ PPR points in year one, the sky in the best offense in football is the limit.