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Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman’s role has diminished over the past month and the proof is in the numbers.
The third-year pro averaged 45.5 offensive snaps per game in the Chiefs’ first nine games.
Over the past three, he’s totaled 45 snaps, including a season-low nine Sunday night in the 22-9 victory against the Denver Broncos. The last time Hardman recorded nine snaps in a single game was Week 8 of the 2019 season.
So, what gives?
“Sometimes it works out that way,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said Monday. “We still have a lot of trust in Mecole. Other weeks, (offensive snaps) will be higher. It’s just the way it worked out.”
Regardless the reason, Hardman’s lack of playing time on offense is difficult to ignore and has resulted in Byron Pringle’s extended playing time.
Pringle recorded 46 snaps in Week 10, 40 in Week 11 and 41 against the Broncos, and he recorded six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown on 11 targets in that span. Hardman, who has lost two fumbles this season, totaled five catches for 64 yards on seven targets in the same stretch.
Through 12 games, Hardman currently ranks third in receiving for the Chiefs, totaling 43 catches for 436 yards and a touchdown on 60 targets. He’s averaging 10.1 yards per reception, and only Tyreek Hill (954) and tight end Travis Kelce (848) have more yards receiving.
Pringle, though, is closing the gap on Hardman with the extended playing time over the past three games. The former Kansas State star has 24 catches for 352 yards and three touchdowns on 36 targets, averaging a team-high 14.7 yards per reception.
While Reid emphasized the team hasn’t lost faith in their 2019 second-round pick, Hardman’s disappearing act isn’t limited to just offense.
Hardman opened the season as the Chiefs’ primary punt returner, but special teams coordinator Dave Toub announced last week that cornerback Mike Hughes would permanently assume the position going forward.
“We’re trying to get a spark,” Toub explained ahead of Sunday night’s game against the Broncos. “We’re not giving up on Mecole by any means. He is probably the most dynamic guy we have, but just a little bit, maybe just sit back and watch a little bit and watch from the sideline. Maybe that’ll help your confidence a little bit and watch somebody else do it.”
The change quietly occurred in Week 10 against the Las Vegas Raiders, and Hughes is averaging 13.6 yards per punt return since becoming the primary returner. Before giving way to Hughes, Hardman totaled eight returns for 86 yards, averaging 10.8 yards per attempt.
Hardman entered the season with high hopes, knowing a third season is often an important one for a young player.
“I think this is one of my important seasons coming into this training camp,” Hardman said during the summer. “I think it’s just up to me, personally, to do what I need to do and take advantage of every opportunity that’s given to me, and gain the trust of the coaches, the rest of the staff and Pat (Mahomes) and my teammates.”
He still has five games remaining in the regular season to produce and the Chiefs could very well give him more playing time based on situation.
But at this point, Hardman might have to make the most of every snap either on offense or special teams given the downward trend of his reduced role in the past three games.