No player has received more hype in OTAs than Justin Hardy. The bearded third-year receiver has been praised by the coaching staff and his teammates for looking bigger, stronger, faster, and more awesome across the board than ever. There’s no reason to doubt that, and no reason to doubt that Hardy is a good, capable receiver.
For the second time today, though, I’m asking whether there’s a role available for a talented young player. Hardy has some of the best hands on this team—if not the best—and he’s a steady weapon who has done nice work in the red zone. If the opportunity were there, this might very well be his breakout season.
I don’t think that opportunity will be there, however. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Hardy managed to reel in 30 passes this year and be one of the team’s leading scorers at receiver, but here’s a short list of players who he will be competing with, along with their 2016 target totals.
Julio Jones: 129
Mohamed Sanu: 81
Devonta Freeman: 65
Taylor Gabriel: 50
Tevin Coleman: 40
Austin Hooper: 27
Levine Toilolo: 19
Hardy himself snagged 31 targets, tied for 6th on the team with Jacob Tamme, and just one target behind Aldrick Robinson. Tamme and Robinson’s departures frees up some looks for Hardy, but Andre Roberts is on the roster, Hooper figures to get a lot more targets, and rookie Eric Saubert could steal some looks as time goes on. That’s not even mentioning Gabriel, who the team will want to get more involved. It’s fair to wonder whether Hardy can clear 40 targets in this group, no matter how good he looks this summer.
Of course, that’s assuming the Falcons continue to prioritize Sanu, Freeman, Gabriel, Coleman, and even Hooper over Hardy. While that seems like a safe assumption in the here and now, it’s worth noting that Hardy has the coaching staff in his corner.
Let’s go ahead and pencil Hardy in for 40 targets this season, and see if he can make a compelling case for many more. That might quality as a mini-breakout, but I think Hardy’s true arrival—if it’s going to come—will be 2018 or later.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. The Falcons can go in many different directions in 2018, thanks to the unique contract situations on the team. Hardy is under contract through 2018 on a cheap deal, Taylor Gabriel’s contract is up after this year without an extension in the offing, and Sanu’s dead cap drops from $11.6 million this year to $4.2 million in 2018, $2.8 million in 2019, and $1.4 million in 2020. If Hardy shows the kind of improvement we’re talking about here in 2017, it might make for a real interesting offseason (and subsequent battle for playing time) next season.