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Atlanta Falcons Roster Review: Rookie receiver Justin Hardy

Hardy didn't have a major impact in his first year, but he made real strides.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

As we entered the 2015 NFL Draft, Atlanta was looking to replace veteran Harry Douglas, who was released prior to  the start of free agency. With Roddy White creeping up in age, the Falcons were looking to add a few young pieces and in the fourth round, the Falcons selected Justin Hardy from East Carolina University.

Although some Falcons fans were unfamiliar with Hardy, I was strongly campaigning for Atlanta to bring him in and develop him as a potential slot or even second receiver to compliment Julio Jones. After a promising training camp, Atlanta surprisingly listed Hardy as an inactive player for the first six games. Although he finished the 2015 season with 21 receptions for 194 receiving yards, we saw him start to emerge as one of Ryan's favorite targets late in the season. As he enters his second year in the NFL, I'll review Hardy's 2015.

Justin Hardy's Potential Should Excite Falcons Fans

Although his rookie season just showed small flashes of his potential, Hardy made a major impact in his tenure with East Carolina. Hardy was a walk-on and was red-shirted as a freshman in college. In his first season as wide receiver, Hardy started eight of 10 games in his redshirt freshman season in 2011, and went on to record a school freshman record 64 receptions for 658 yards and six touchdowns. In 2012, Hardy posted another big season and earned a All-Conference USA first-team selection after recording 88 receptions for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns. In his junior season, Hardy earned yet another first-team All-Conference USA after setting school records for receptions 114 and receiving yards 1,284 in a season.

In his last season, Hardy was named the winner of that season's Burlsworth Trophy, awarded annually to the most outstanding player who began his college career as a walk-on, while setting the NCAA record in receptions during a college career with 348 and finished off his senior year with 121 receptions for 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns. Hardy finished as one of the best receivers we've seen in recent history in the NCAA. However, not many casual college fans noticed his impact considering the lack of popularity from the university.

Hardy is solid at coming back to the football and adjusts well to inaccurate passes, which is a huge plus for this team. We've seen that his length is very impressive for his height. One of the things that impressed me with Hardy was his prowess as a hand catcher. A few times last season, we saw Ryan connect with him on third down plays, and Hardy converted 70% of his third down receptions in his final year at ECU. . Hardy is also a very solid route runner with the speed and ability to extend plays as well.

Will the Falcons properly develop Justin Hardy in Shanahan's scheme?

One of the disadvantages Hardy faced in his rookie season was the lack of targets, and missing the first six games of his rookie season. In 2016, Atlanta should work on developing Justin Hardy as a complimentary receiver for the future. With the exception of Julio Jones, there's a legitimate chance that Hardy is the only other remaining member of the 2015 wide receiver corps in Atlanta. Quinn, Shanahan and the front office will address the need at wide receiver in the draft or in free agency, but hopefully Hardy isn't a forgotten weapon.

The team needs to work with Hardy on his route running. Although he can run solid routes and have great hands, he will need to learn the playbook even further to maximize the talent we desperately lack from another receiver. Whether Hardy is a slot receiver or outside threat, he'll also need help with creating separation at times with opposing cornerbacks. One of the benefits for Hardy is having a elite receiver such as Julio Jones to help him progress in his second year in the NFL. In many ways, with the proper development throughout the off-season, he could take on the role as a younger Roddy White. He's a receiver that can extend the drive and make the tough catches in third down situations in the moments we need him to make a play.

2016 Outlook

Entering next season, Hardy will receive an increased role in the Falcons offense. As I stated earlier, Ryan was beginning to gain some chemistry with Hardy and that's a positive sign to build on in the offense as we're looking for another threat in the passing attack. Hardy's potential in Atlanta is bright, whether his role is as a #2 or slot receiver. The 2015 Falcons draft class featured a lot guys with the potential to have successful careers in the NFL. Justin Hardy is one of those players I feel have a lot of potential, so Falcons fans, be patient and watch him develop in our system.

What's your thoughts on Justin Hardy?