Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The injury to Sammy Watkins will force other Chiefs wide receivers to play a bigger role.
One of those injuries was to the right hamstring of starting wide receiver Sammy Watkins. The team’s third-leading receiver limped off the field in the second quarter; his absence likely affected the Chiefs’ offensive output for the remainder of the game.
Fortunately, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid says Watkins is unlikely to be placed on injured reserve, which would guarantee he would miss at least three games.
“With Sammy, I don’t think that’s what it is,” Reid said during his Thursday press conference. “I think we’ll just let him heal up and take it from there.”
But it’s reasonable to assume Watkins will miss at least one game — if not more. In his absence, the offense will be relying on multiple pass-catchers — but there is one player in particular who has expectations to step into a bigger role.
“I’m prepared,” second-year wide receiver Mecole Hardman told reporters. “I did it last year when Tyreek Hill went down — I think Sammy went down one time, too. I’m ready for the challenge; it’s nothing that I don’t think I can handle. I’m practicing hard, doing what I need to do, so whenever I get that chance I’m going to take advantage of it… Whatever they got planned for me, that’s what I’m going to do — and do it the best I can.”
In his rookie season, Hardman was on the field more quickly than he probably expected; Hill was injured in the first quarter of the 2019 season opener. In the following four games, Hardman totaled 12 catches, 246 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Even though he wasn’t exactly comfortable with his unexpected increase in playing time, that four-game stretch is still the most productive Hardman has had.
“It was kind of overwhelming,” Hardman recalled, “but this year, I’m more experienced. Everything has settled down for me, I’m ready for that role and I’m just waiting for that time to come. I never want it to come because of injury — but if it comes like this, I’m going to be ready for the challenge.”
The Chiefs’ wide receivers are a close-knit group; all five of the active player were on the team last year. So Hardman feels for Watkins because of his injury — but also understands what the offense loses when Watkins on the sidelines.
“Sammy blocks very well; he’s a very good route runner underneath,” Hardman explained. “People don’t really see what he does in terms of getting guys open. You really have to give attention to Sammy, because he’s also good after the catch… What he does is special: he makes everyone around him better. He’s a good leader, he blocks very well in certain situations, he blocks after the catch [and] he’s good after the catch.
“Those things are things that me and Byron Pringle have to step up on — if he is out this game — and fill those roles and some of the production he had.”
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes agreed with Hardman about Watkins’ significance to the offense.
“Having Sammy out there is a huge plus,” Mahomes acknowledged. “He’s someone who does everything. He’s able to catch and be explosive, he blocks very well, he gets other guys open. Whenever you have those type of playmakers on the field, defenses have to take notice of that. You’re hoping guys can step up — like Mecole, Pringle and all these other guys — and make up for that production.”
It’s important to understand that Hardman is not a direct replacement for Watkins’ role in the offense. Watkins is the X wide receiver — a player who lines up on the line of scrimmage and can handle press coverage. With his physique, Hardman doesn’t quite fit that bill — but he’s still confident he can work to have a similar impact.
“I can go out there and block, for sure,” he said. “I can get guys open; I can do what is needed of me. Is Sammy a little bit better of a blocker than me? Yeah, he’s a bigger guy that can take on bigger blocks — but myself, I’m going to go in there and block [and] do the best I can to help my guys out; I’m not going to shy away from it. I definitely think that I can pick up some of that slack with him not being on the field.”
It’s good to see that confidence in a young player like Hardman — not only about areas of his game that he needs to improve, but also his strengths as a receiver.
“The deep ball is pretty easy,” he said. “Get behind defenders and just track the ball. Any guy with speed, I think that’s the easy part of the game. But the dig routes, the stop routes, the curls, the press [and] catching in traffic — contested catches is what we have to work on — I worked on a lot in the offseason. And I’m continuing to work on it right now.”
Hardman said that if he can improve those parts of his game, he’ll be even better in the areas where he already does well.
“If I’m more of a threat in the intermediate game, then the deep ball game will open up for me — which is pretty easy for me.”
Still, wide receivers like Demarcus Robinson or Pringle could be the ones to step up while Watkins is sidelined — but unlike Hardman, neither of them were second-round picks. As a player selected that early, the expectations for Hardman are simply higher. So as long as Watkins is sidelined, Hardman will have the most attention — and in the coming weeks, he has a chance to make a statement.