What’s it like to switch from defensive back to wide receiver? Mecole Hardman gives insight
Mecole Hardman had one person waiting for him after he finished his final media session with Georgia beat reporters. Atlanta Falcons’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff stood in the far corner of the end zone and exchanged pleasantries with the former Bulldog speed merchant.
As the pre-draft process continues, there have been an assortment of interactions between the Falcons’ brass and the hometown talent. That includes a meeting at the NFL combine in Indianapolis and Wednesday’s pro day in Athens. Hardman believes another meeting will be set up between the two parties before the draft begins on April 25.
Hardman perks up at the potential of staying close to home and playing for the Falcons. He always supported the team, especially during the days of former quarterback Michael Vick — he could run a little bit, too.
“It would be a good spot,” Hardman said. “Being in Georgia, that’s like my backyard and that makes it fun. We’ll see how it goes — either they get me or not.”
Hardman performed pass-catching and agility drills in front of a host of Falcons’ coaches and scouts, including special teams coach Ben Kotwica. It has been an annual occurrence for the local NFL franchise to make the 42-mile drive to Athens, but it hasn’t amounted to much in recent years (which has drawn its fair share of ire from the fan base). Atlanta hasn’t drafted a Georgia product since Akeem Dent in the third round, but this could be a match in the making.
There’s a reasoning that’s fairly cut-and-dry, Hardman said: “It’s their need and that’s what I do.” He’s correct, and that’s justified by Hardman’s explosiveness during his collegiate days as he was a threat to score a return touchdown on nearly any opportunity. The Falcons have an obvious need at the position, and Dimitroff isn’t hesitant to admit it.
“We know he can fly,” Dimitroff said. “He’s another versatile guy who can not only catch the ball and run routes, but he can do some damage as a return guy.”
Atlanta non-tendered wide receiver Marvin Hall, who was the team’s kick returner. Justin Hardy, a fourth-round draftee out of East Carolina in 2015, wasn’t resigned after spending the 2018 season as the Falcons’ punt returner. Hall was adequate with an average of 23.7 yards per return, but Hardy was unable to be a difference-maker for the 7-9 Falcons as he averaged 7.4 yards and a long return of only 18 yards.
Nevertheless, those talents are scratched from the roster and vacancies are present. Atlanta signed Kenjon Barner on March 14, but has bounced around the league and his highlight of the 2018 season was being pancaked by Falcons’ punter Matt Bosher as a member of the Carolina Panthers.
“(Barner is) more of a kickoff return guy,” Dimitroff said. “We feel like we have a couple of guys we can mix in there without getting into too much detail. Draft wise, there are some interesting guys out there.”
Atlanta has one area checked, maybe, and its second could be filled with a mid-round addition in Hardman. He fits the interesting label, after all. As a well-liked player by both fan bases, Hardman’s speed is what flashes. He recorded a 40-yard dash at 4.33 seconds at the combine, and chose not to run at pro day although he thought that blazing number could’ve been topped.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and NFL personnel alike are cautious to fully place stock in the time-based statistics, and that can be true for Elijah Holyfield and Isaac Nauta as they posted slower-than-expected times in the dash. It can be about game tape for some, but Hardman’s speed could be what lands him on a roster.
That can be seen by a stopwatch or on the highlight reel. Hardman averaged over 20 yards on each punt return and kick return as a departing junior. He added 543 receiving yards and seven touchdowns to that tally.
How does that translate professionally?
“That’s crazy to think about,” fellow wide receiver Jayson Stanley said. “He’s going to be something different. I don’t think the NFL has seen that speed. I know for a fact he’s going to take off immediately.”
As Hardman comes closer to hearing his name called, he is questioned about a position change after the 2016 season. He came to Georgia from Elbert County as a five-star defensive back, and even played quarterback in high school. Hardman was sidelined for most of his freshman year as he tried to develop, then had his two seasons to flash at wide receiver.
“They see the potential, and I don’t think it’s really a big issue,” Hardman said. “They’ve seen two years of film, combine and pro day. They see that I can (play receiver).”
Most mock drafts project Hardman to be chosen between the third and fifth rounds. That’s the case with most of his former teammates who decided to leave the program early. He’s not focused on where people believe he may be drafted, however, as his priority is being drafted period.
Stanley believed Hardman translates to that of Kansas City Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill — a player who has wreaked havoc across the league as a receiver and on special teams’ units. He may also translate to former Bulldog Isaiah McKenzie who flashed for the Denver Broncos as a former fifth-round draft pick. But as the NFL evolves into featuring more speed-like talent, that list grows.
“You see Mecole Hardmans all over the league,” Smart said. “He has been elite from a special teams standpoint, and still think he has great upside at the wide receiver position. He will flourish at the next level, but he hasn’t even reached his full potential.”
There are pieces that lineup to make the addition a logical one, and many Falcons’ fans would be in favor of following a beloved player. As the Falcons intently watched the Bulldogs, there was also impression from the other side.
Atlanta’s obvious target was cornerback Deandre Baker, who is projected to be a first-round draft pick and called it a “dream come true” if drafted by the Falcons. Hardman creates intrigue, however, and the Falcons have a history of drafting two players from the same university — Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley Jr. out of Clemson in 2015.
It’ll be seen in about a month whether a simple handshake between Hardman and the Falcons’ decision-maker has any meaning.
“It’d be nice, for sure,” Hardman said.