Why sign him if you're not going to play him?
Even for those who were giving the benefit of the doubt to offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and the New York Jets, the final play in Super Bowl LVIII raises serious questions about the gross mishandling of Mecole Hardman.
Traded back to the team that drafted him in 2019, Hardman showed up when the lights were brightest by scoring the walk-off touchdown for the Kansas City Chiefs in a 25-22 championship victory over the San Francisco 49ers. He made three receptions for 57 yards on the way to a third Super Bowl ring in five years.
About 11 months earlier, Hardman had landed with the Jets in free agency. The speedy slot receiver signed a one-year deal as a dangerous weapon that could help elevate an underperforming offense.
Obviously, the Jets' offense was turned upside the moment that future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers ruptured his Achilles, but that doesn't explain the fact that Hardman played fewer than 10 percent of the snaps during his short-lived Jets' tenure.
The Jets' offense (268.6), which finished 31st out of 32 teams, was stuck in neutral for much of the season yet Hardman, for some unknown reason, couldn't crack the lineup. Looking like WR3 heading into training camp, Hardman was eventually buried on the depth chart in favor of undrafted rookie Xavier Gipson.
Although an unquestionably impressive athlete with an inspiring story as an overlooked small-school product, Gipson had accomplished nothing that justified his automatic leapfrogging of Hardman in the receiving corps' hierarchy. Putting his return abilities aside, Gipson was about what one would have expected from an undrafted rookie receiver. He ranked fifth on the team in receiving yards (229) while catching 21 of 38 targets.
After WR1 Garrett Wilson's 1,000-yard season, the Jets' receivers were an underwhelming bunch in 2023. Disappointing free-agent addition Allen Lazard caught fewer than 47 percent of his targets while totaling only 311 yards. Undrafted rookie Jason Brownlee recorded five receptions for 56 yards while grizzled veteran Randall Cobb delivered only five grabs for 39 yards on 17 targets.
No one is mistaking Hardman for an All-Pro, but he couldn't have done any worse than the aforementioned results of his colleagues. He is an experienced professional with elite speed. It's baffling that Hackett and Co. failed to recognize his worth by at least giving him a chance to grow into the offense.
In six games as a Jet, Hardman totaled 28 offensive snaps for an offense thirsting for playmakers.
Whatever the reason why the Hardman experiment failed, the Jets can't afford to let something similar happen again. If New York signs another Hardman-type free agent this offseason, Hackett and Co. can't be allowed to waste him on the bench.