Mecole Hardman and 5 Other NFL Players Entering 'Put Up or Shut Up' Time in 2021

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2021

Mecole Hardman and 5 Other NFL Players Entering 'Put Up or Shut Up' Time in 2021

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    Steve Sanders/Associated Press

    Make or break. Put up or shut up. Now or never. No matter how one chooses to dress it up, the 2021 season will be pivotal for a handful of younger NFL players stepping into bigger spotlights. 

    Think Mecole Hardman of the Kansas City Chiefs. The 2019 second-round pick projects to have a bigger role than ever in a Patrick Mahomes-led offense next year. If he doesn't meet expectations, the contender likely won't hesitate to start seeking out his replacement. 

    There are similar stories across the league. Notable hefty investments by teams appear ready for the biggest stages of their respective careers—or their teams have patience that expires after this year. 

    In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, these are the most notable examples of players entering the put-up-or-shut-up zone. 

Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    It's only natural if San Francisco 49ers fans are most hyped for Deebo Samuel going into 2021. 

    Samuel, after all, has flashed major upside over his first two seasons after the team made him a second-round pick in 2019. His debut year featured 802 receiving yards and three scores plus 159 rushing yards on 14 touches with three more scores over 15 games. 

    But a sophomore slump compounded by injuries quelled the hype for Samuel. He made it in just seven games, catching 33 passes with one score. 

    Still, Samuel has been wickedly effective when healthy, averaging 13.3 yards per catch and 8.4 yards per rush. It's safe to feel he'll be even more dangerous in 2021 on the same field as George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk. 

    But if he's not and some of this hype level isn't realized, San Francisco might start eyeing ways to find insurance plans, especially if it means avoiding messy contract-extension talks since Samuel's deal is up after 2022. 

Hayden Hurst, TE, Atlanta Falcons

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    It's almost easy to forget Hayden Hurst was a first-round pick in 2018. 

    The Baltimore Ravens made the South Carolina product the 25th pick, then largely stashed him on the depth chart with little in the way of usage for two years. After that, Baltimore shipped him to Atlanta. 

    Those Falcons, at least, gave him career-high usage via 88 targets over 16 games, which he turned into 56 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns. 

    There's plenty of room for improvement, too. He only had a 63.6 catch percentage with four drops while playing 70 percent of the offense's snaps. Julio Jones and his 68 targets over nine games from last season (157 over 15 in 2019, etc.) is gone, so there's plenty of opportunity for Hurst to step up and post the best numbers of his career. 

    Atlanta didn't exercise Hurst's fifth-year option despite the investment in trading for him, so he's got one chance to realize his potential or the Falcons could sweep him aside as a rebuild looms. 

Jonah Williams, OT , Cincinnati Bengals

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Jonah Williams was the latest attempt by the Cincinnati Bengals to dig the franchise out of the massive, self-dug hole that was one of the league's worst offensive lines. 

    Though it's easy to forget, Williams was the 11th pick in 2019 as the first offensive lineman off the board. He immediately missed his rookie season due to injury, then only made it in 10 games last year. 

    Over those 10 games, Williams posted a 70.1 Pro Football Focus grade (just inside the "starter" category), getting called for two penalties and allowing three sacks. Not terrible, but Williams wasn't consistent at left tackle, and Joe Burrow still went down with a season-ending injury. 

    The Bengals have since revamped other spots on the line such as at guard and right tackle. Williams heads into what is effectively his second on-field season with big pressure, especially since the team will have to start thinking about his fifth-year option. 

    If Williams can't stay on the field or new offensive line coach Frank Pollack can't pull out his best quickly, the Bengals might not hesitate to start over after already having one serious injury scare with Burrow. 

T.J. Hockenson, TE, Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions are another team waiting on the big payoff for taking a first-round weapon. 

    T.J. Hockenson's story is a bit more dramatic than most though. Since joining the Lions via the eighth pick in 2019, Hockenson has managed just 1,090 yards and eight touchdowns over 28 games. Even worse, he finished second on the team in targets last year (101), but had a paltry 66.3 catch percentage with seven drops while being the target on four interceptions. 

    It's understandable if the Lions expect improvement, if not even more from their big investment, despite swapping out Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff under center. Goff didn't send more than 62 targets to a tight end last year in Los Angeles, but Hockenson is notably better than Gerald Everett, and the Lions don't have a Cooper Kupp-Robert Woods-Josh Reynolds trio to feed at wideout. 

    In fact, all Detroit has after offseason losses is Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams, so it's now-or-never time for Hockenson to step up and be the main threat of the offense. If not, a decision on that fifth-year option and more looms. 

Jerry Tillery, DL, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    When the Los Angeles Chargers made Jerry Tillery the 28th pick in 2019, the team expected a centerpiece that could disrupt and stutter rushing attacks alongside Joey Bosa. 

    Instead, Tillery has struggled over 31 appearances, generating just five sacks. His pressure count jumped from three to 22 in his sophomore season as his snap percentage jumped from 36 to 72. 

    But that bigger spat of playing time didn't provide positive signals across the board. At PFF, for example, he graded at a 43.9 in 2020 (in the "replaceable" category). That was up from his rookie year's 35.5, but it paints a poor picture about his all-around play, at least by one grading metric. 

    The Chargers haven't gone out of their way to give up on Tillery yet, and despite his play last year, his role could only increase. Flanked by strong players like Bosa and with fifth-year options and extensions starting to enter the discussion, 2021 could be the make-or-break year for Tillery. 

Mecole Hardman, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Steve Sanders/Associated Press

    Andy Reid and the Kansas Chiefs aren't afraid to shuffle players to the side. Think Le'Veon Bell. 

    So it stands to reason that the patience for Mecole Hardman will only last so long. After being a second-round pick in 2019, Hardman enters year three with just 103 targets to his name. He's turned those limited chances into 67 catches for 1,098 yards and 10 touchdowns. 

    While a career catch percentage of 65 won't blow anyone away, it's important to keep in mind Hardman has yet to even play 50 percent of the offense's snaps in a season. That stands to change in 2021 with Sammy Watkins and his 55 targets over 10 games gone. 

    That said, the Chiefs won't hesitate to look at someone like Demarcus Robinson in the pecking order behind Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, as he came up just three targets behind Hardman last year. Hardman fell behind Watkins and Robinson in Super Bowl snap counts

    Point being, the Chiefs will expect major production over bigger usage quickly for Hardman as he benefits from defenses scrambling to cover Kelce, Hill and a slew of pass-catching backs. If he's not up to task, it's easy to see the team dipping back into the well with a luxury-type move in an upcoming trip to the draft or free agency. 

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