It was an awesome year for rookie wide receivers.
Six rookie wideouts finished with a double-digit best ball win rate, matching the total from the previous four years combined. As such, you can expect guys like A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, and Deebo Samuel to fly off the board fairly early in drafts this offseason.
But who’s going to be the unheralded sophomore who shocks the world by blossoming into a fantasy-relevant player? Who’s going to be the next Michael Gallup or D.J. Chark?
I’ll give you one guess.
If you said Mecole Hardman, congratulations, you read the title before clicking on this article.
At Hardman’s current ADP of 137.3 (WR53), he is possibly the best value in early best ball drafts. Hammer him at that price tag before the market corrects itself. It’s also important to note that we don’t have a huge sample of drafts at this point; Hardman’s ADP could change in a heartbeat if a few people decide to take him higher than consensus. Still, he’ll be a huge value even if his positional ADP goes up a few spots.
The Biggest Edge in Fantasy
Last July, Shawn Siegele wrote an article in which he called second-year WRs “the biggest edge in fantasy.”
Many fantasy players think Year 3 is the big breakout year for WRs, but it’s actually Year 2. As Shawn talked about in his article, second-year WRs have more total breakouts than all other years combined since 2000. The majority of these breakouts have been early-round NFL Draft picks, like Hardman. If you want to capitalize on the biggest edge in fantasy, Hardman is going to be one of the cheaper options out there.
Target Efficiency with Second-Year WRs
Among all rookie wide receivers with 40 or more targets since 2000, Hardman had the highest receiving Fantasy Points Over Expectation Per Attempt (reFPOEPA) at 1.19. Granted, 40 is a pretty generous cutoff because he finished the year with 41 targets, but the point remains that his efficiency was nothing short of elite. In fact, he led all Chiefs pass-catchers in total Fantasy Points Over Expectation (FPOE) despite being their WR4.
As Blair Andrews showed in The Wrong Read No. 59, rookie-year efficiency is incredibly important for WRs. WRs who post a positive FPOE in Year 1 outscore their inefficient counterparts by an average of 55.7 points in Year 2. Furthermore, positive-FPOE rookie WRs tend to continue being efficient in the following season. Curtis Patrick also recently wrote about how top-100 draft picks who post at least 40 FPOE in their rookie campaign have a near-spotless track record.
Clearly, efficiency is a great sign for rookie WRs, and it also appears to be undervalued by the market in best ball drafts. From 2015-18, there were 22 rookie WRs who had at least 20 expected points (EP) and a positive FPOE. Their average best ball win rate in the following season was 9.4%, and 54.5% were above-expectation. The public does not adequately value rookie-year efficiency at WR.
The Importance of Declaring Early
Hardman doesn’t turn 22 until March.
In The Wrong Read No. 32, Blair showed that 21-year-old rookie WRs have much more productive careers than their older counterparts. 22.5% of all seasons played by WRs who were 21-year-rookies were top-24 seasons. Along the same lines, Hardman declared early, which Blair wrote about being a major boon for WRs in The Wrong Read No. 53. On average, WRs who declared early score twice as many points and break out six times as often in their first two seasons compared to those who didn’t.
Hardman the Prospect and Hardman the Draft Pick
The one knock on Hardman — and I suspect one of the main reasons he is being picked so low — is that he wasn’t a great prospect coming out of Georgia. His final dominator rating was only 0.19, and he never broke out. He did test well — he’s got 4.33 jets — but his lack of production at the college level is a major red flag.
However, the Chiefs spent a second-round pick on him in spite of that lack of production, and draft capital is a major predictor of NFL success. Although second-round picks are far from infallible, it likely ensures that Hardman will at least be given an opportunity to earn more volume in Year 2.
The Patrick Mahomes Factor
Hardman is also tied to Patrick Mahomes for the foreseeable future. In 2019, the Chiefs were fifth in team WR FPOE. In 2018, they were seventh. As long as Mahomes is the quarterback, you can be confident that Kansas City will have one of the most dynamic aerial attacks in the NFL.
Demarcus Robinson, Sammy Watkins, Opportunity, and Asymmetric Upside
Demarcus Robinson is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. He operated as the WR3 – ahead of Hardman – in 2019, but at this point we don’t know where he’ll play next year. Sammy Watkins has one year left on his deal, but the Chiefs have an out this offseason if they want to use it. Given his struggles this year, it would not be a surprise if they do, in which case Hardman’s ADP would shoot to the moon. Even if Watkins is back, there’s a solid chance Hardman simply surpasses him on the depth chart based on how much more efficient he was compared to the older Watkins.
At Hardman’s current ADP, he’s a perfect example of asymmetric upside. Best-case scenario, you’re getting the WR2 in the NFL’s most explosive passing offense. Worst-case, he remains the WR4 (if the Chiefs keep Watkins, re-sign Robinson or bring someone else in, and Hardman can’t jump past either or both of them on the depth chart), you just spent a late-round pick on a guy who is only going to get a few targets per game in, again, the NFL’s most explosive passing offense. For reference, WRs whose ADP was Round 10 or later in 2019 averaged just 54.8 targets. Given the strength of the Chiefs’ offense and Hardman’s rookie-year efficiency, it seems likely that he will finish with positive FPOE again next year, meaning he won’t need as many targets as your average late-round WR to pay off his ADP. However, his rookie-year efficiency likely earned him more targets next season, so you’re staring at an uptick in volume from a WR who will continue to be efficient.
For now, Hardman is quite possibly the best value in all of fantasy football at his current WR53 ADP. Draft him knowing that you could be getting Mahomes’ WR2 at a massive discount.