The time seemed right against the Buffalo Bills for the Kansas City Chiefs to learn what Mecole Hardman could provide as a regular wide receiver. Starter Sammy Watkins was out with an injury and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy sounded eager to get a long look at Hardman.
"He does some things everyone can't do," Bieniemy said, referring to Hardman's speed. "One thing we love with Mecole, when that ball is in his hands, he finds a way to make things happen.
"Now he's being thrust into that role. Now he has to be productive for a high percentage of time. ... We're counting on him to do some things."
The Chiefs' actions during Monday night's win over the Buffalo Bills didn't meet those words. Demarcus Robinson and not Hardman received Watkins' playing time. Robinson, in fact, played more snaps than starter Tyreek Hill (69 to 67). Robinson had five catches and led the Chiefs with 69 yards.
Hardman had no catches and was only targeted once. Seven other Chiefs players caught a pass. Hardman was in the game for 29 plays, one more than fourth wide receiver Byron Pringle, who caught a pair of passes, including one on third down that went for 37 yards, the Chiefs' longest of the game.
"I've always thought highly of Pringle," quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. "He comes in every single day, he works extremely hard and when his number gets called, he makes plays."
But Hardman? His total of 13 receptions through six games is tied for fifth on the Chiefs. He does have two touchdowns, and because he is fast, a good measure of his production is making the big plays. He is averaging 14.9 yards per catch, or about 6 yards fewer per reception than last season when he led the team in that category.
Hardman understands he needs to be more than a deep threat to become a regular.
"The deep balls -- getting behind defenders, tracking the ball, catching -- that's kind of easy, I think," Hardman said. "Any guys with speed, I think that's the easy part. The dig routes, the stop routes, the curls, [beating] the press, catching in traffic, contested catches is what we've got to work on. I worked on that a lot in the offseason and I'm continuing right now even in practice [to] focus on the ball and catching everything.
"Those tools will kind of make you a better player. I know I need to improve on that [more], which I am and which I'm trying to do."
It was natural to assume that Hardman, drafted by the Chiefs in the second round last year, would eventually replace Watkins, who is in the final season of his contract.
The Chiefs, who fought hard to keep Watkins for this season by re-signing him to a reduced contract, clearly didn't think Hardman was ready for such a role in 2020. Watkins does things that don't show up in the box score but still make the Chiefs more productive, such as blocking and attracting coverage to help other receivers get open.
Their actions with Hardman in the Buffalo game suggest they believe he is no closer to being ready.
"I can go out there and block, for sure," Hardman said. "I think I can get [other receivers] open. I can do all of that that's needed of me. Is Sammy a little bit better blocker than me? Yeah, he's bigger, a bigger frame, a bigger guy that can take on bigger [defenders]. Myself, I'm going to go in there and block and do the best I can to help my guys out and I'm not going to shy away from it."