Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Justin Hardy has a big year ahead of him. “Make or break” would probably be hyperbole here, because Hardy is just looking to keep getting paid to play football. Problem is he may struggle to stay relevant on a team with such a loaded offense, including a shiny new first round draft pick who happens to play his position.
Hardy’s numbers since he was drafted won’t blow your socks off: 62 receptions, 618 receiving yards, and 7 touchdowns. He was prolific at East Carolina. In his junior and senior seasons, he racked up 235 receptions, 2,778 receiving yards, and 18 touchdowns. Pro Football Focus gave him a 2017 grade of 50.5. (That ranked 85th among NFL WRs. It also means he had a “poor” season, according to their metrics.)
As Hardy enters the last year of his rookie contract with the Falcons, he has a lot to play for; if he wants a future at Flowery Branch, it’s now or never. But even if the Falcons don’t intend to re-sign him, 2018 will essentially serve as an audition for 2019 free agency. Hardy needs to show teams he can be a bigger part of the offensive game plan; no small task when you play for the Falcons.
To be sure, it’s never been about talent for Hardy. He’s a sure-handed, smart wide receiver, but playing without a playbook in college made his transition to professional football harder than it needed to be. Some folks also point to Kyle Shanahan’s complex playbook and the transition to a Steve Sarkisian-led offense as additional factors that have kept Hardy from achieving his full potential. No matter the underlying explanations, Hardy’s clock is undeniably ticking. With any luck he will take on a bigger role in 2018, earning a new contract and solidifying his role with the team.