A breakdown of the Atlanta Falcons’ 2015 fourth-round pick: East Carolina wide receiver Justin Hardy.
BIO & VITALS
College: East Carolina
40 Time: 4.56 (Combine)
3-Cone: 6.63 (Combine)
Justin Hardy was born on December 18, 1991 in Washington, NC. He went to high school at West Craven High in Vanceboro, NC where he played wide receiver before moving to quarterback as a senior.
He did not get any looks from Division I programs after high school, eventually signing with Division II school Fayetteville State. But after the hiring of Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina in 2010 and the installation of the Mike Leach-style spread offense, he spurned Fayetteville State in order to walk on at ECU.
He earned a scholarship thanks to his hard work during his initial redshirt season and started eight of 10 games as a freshman. He set a school record for freshman with 64 catches and 658 yards, while also hauling in six touchdowns. As a sophomore, he would earn first-team All-Conference USA honors while starting 11 of 12 games at wide receiver, catching 88 passes for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also returned punts as a sophomore, earning second team All-conference honors while averaging 8.8 yards on 20 returns. He started all 13 games as a junior, setting a new single-season record at ECU with 114 catches for 1,284 yards, also adding eight touchdowns. His reception total ranked third in the nation, earning him first-team All-Conference USA honors for the second consecutive year. As a junior, he also averaged 11.3 yards on 20 punt returns.
He broke his single season records as a senior, catching 121 passes for 1,494 yards with 10 touchdowns. He ranked second in the nation in receptions behind only Amari Cooper (124) and was fourth in receiving yards. He broke NCAA record for most career receptions, shattering Ryan Broyles’ 349-catch mark by finishing his career with 387 catches. His 4,541 receiving yards also ranks third all-time in the NCAA record books. He earned first team All-American Athletic Conference honors as a senior and was a third-team selection to the Associated Press’ All-American team. His production as a punt returner took a dip, averaging just 4.1 yards on 23 returns. He also scored a seven-yard touchdown as a senior on the lone rushing attempt of his career. During the course of his career, Hardy also completed four of 10 passes for 147 yards and two scores as a passer.
Hardy won the Burlsworth Trophy as a senior after being a semifinalist as a junior. That award honors the top player that was formerly a walk on. He is known for his quiet demeanor, but high character, work ethic and leadership. Earned a 3.8 grade-point average in high school, never missed a class while at ECU and helped tutoring incoming receivers to learn the offense during his final years. His father died of a heart attack in February 2013 and he dedicated his junior season to him.
2014 GAMES WATCHED
|Aug 30||NC CENTRAL||10||8||87||10.9||23||2.9||2||1||0||0|
|Sep 6||at South Carolina||14||11||133||12.1||65||5.9||0||1||0||0|
|Sep 13||at Virginia Tech||9||4||47||11.8||23||5.8||0||2||1||0|
|Nov 13||at Cincinnati||21||15||188||12.5||21||1.4||1||3||0||2|
|Jan 3||vs. Florida||21||11||160||14.5||115||10.4||1||4||1||1|
The grading system is based on a 10-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite.
Speed (5.0) – Has enough speed to compete at the next level, but struggled to run by collegiate corners and will certainly also struggle to do so against NFL-caliber ones. His speed won’t threaten downfield and he’s not going to run away from anyone when the ball is in his hands. Struggled to run away from quality SEC linebackers in terms of his speed due to limited acceleration and top-end speed.
Hands (9.0) – Has large, strong hands that measure 10 inches in size. Rarely drops passes due to excellent concentration and ball skills. Consistently attacks the ball in the air and able to extend away from his body, giving him a bigger catch radius and making him more effective in traffic than most receivers his size. On the rare occasions when he does drop a pass, it’s usually do to looking upfield before securing it or trying to avoid a hit when diving over the middle.
After the Catch (5.0) – Does a good job securing the ball quickly and turning upfield to try and get a few yards after each reception, but his lack of speed and ideal acceleration limits what he can do after the catch. Not someone that is going to be a threat to score consistently, nor is he particularly dangerous on screens unless it’s very well-blocked. Has good quickness and vision, with his experience as a punt returner allowing him to dodge and juke defenders in the open field. But his inability to accelerate out of his cuts and reach top speed quickly means that he spends more time dancing than gaining serious yardage. Most of his big plays after the catch came when he was able to exploit a defender being out of position or taking a very poor angle.
Body Control (9.0) – Has excellent body control and is able to consistently twist and adjust his body in the air. Whether it’s a low or high pass, he’ll usually make a play on it and often comes down with it. Reliably tracks the ball well in the air, making him effective on fades and back-shoulder throws as seen in the following GIF:
Route-Running (7.0) – Runs clean, polished routes, predominantly out of the slot. Has clean footwork and no wasted movements. Tends to run a lot of quick curls, slants, outs and crosses that allow him to gain quick separation on the underneath routes. Does a good job working on the scramble drill and consistently will work to come back to the quarterback. Easily able to locate soft spots of zones between defenders, settle and present a good target for his quarterback. Doesn’t have ideal burst or separation skills and wasn’t able to create necessary cushion against top-tier collegiate corners. Was mismatched at times against quality press corners.
Blocking (5.0) – Gives good effort for the most part as a blocker, especially downfield. Flashes the ability to get his hands inside and lock on, occasionally getting after a defender and playing to the whistle but just as often only gives perfunctory effort. Not someone that is going to be effective against linebackers or bigger safeties in the NFL. Usually is able to get to his assignments, but at the NFL level, he’s going to be someone that mostly gets in the way of defenders rather than truly being an effective blocker.
This is based off my own grading system on a 9-point scale.
Developmental Starter (4.7) – A player right on the cusp of being a starter but may be lacking in at least one key area that limits his potential. If he does become a starter, almost never will become more than complementary guy as opposed to an impact player since he will struggle to compete against quality players at the next level. A solid mid-round pick that should be targeted early on Day 3, that towards the upper end could sneak into the Top 100 picks.
Hardy is tailor-made to be a slot receiver at the next level and can become a very productive underneath and intermediate option for any NFL offense. He lacks the sort of upside that teams typically like at the position because he doesn’t have the sort of size or speed to be a dynamic play-making threat, but he should quickly develop into a reliable, complementary option at the next level.
A lot of Hardy’s production at ECU was padded a bit because he ran a few yards downfield, turn around and catch it thanks to seeing a lot of off coverage. This ability was greatly helped by the fact that he lined up in the slot where he rarely saw press coverage and earned a lot of matchups against lesser safeties. When he faced top NFL-caliber cornerback prospects like Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves or Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller he was a lot less impactful, struggling to beat jams at the line of scrimmage and not being able to create as much natural separation due to a lack of burst.
The following GIF shows Hardy getting jammed by Hargreaves at the line of scrimmage:
These issues are probably going to follow Hardy at the next level. However, if he’s put in the right offense and used correctly, they shouldn’t be too much of a limiting factor. He won’t be a player that makes a ton of plays, but can move the chains over the middle of the field. If he continues to work in the slot, he’ll usually avoid the bigger and faster corners that gave him trouble in college. He’ll also get numerous opportunities to line up against safeties and linebackers in the slot, and his precise route-running abilities should be more than able to exploit such matchups.
In such an offense he could be as productive as a player like Miami Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry, who caught 84 passes in 2014 as a rookie. Like Landry, Hardy is not blessed with dynamic speed or elite separation skills, but has the strong hands, body control and route-running ability to win on the short stuff.
A big reason for Landry’s production came due how rarely he was asked to run routes downfield. Landry had one of the lowest depth of reception in the NFL last year, with his average reception coming 4.1 yards downfield according to Pro Football Focus’ numbers. Among 110 regular wide receivers, that figure ranked 108th with only Josh Morgan (2.3) and Tavon Austin (2.1) being lower. For the sake of comparison, Harry Douglas had a depth of reception of 6.2 last year, lowest among the Falcons’ top four wideouts.
Wes Welker was used in a similar manner during his peak years with the New England Patriots, and thus Hardy could similarly develop into a high-volume receiver that catches over 100 passes in a season like Welker. But that will depend primarily on him playing in the right offense with the right supporting cast. Having teammates at wide receiver and tight end that can stretch the defense and open things up underneath, as Welker had in New England with the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Randy Moss will be critical if Hardy wants to maximize his production at the next level.
Like both Landry and Welker, Hardy won’t be much of a red-zone threat due to his lack of size. While his ball skills and catch radius make him effective on fade passes, he won’t have as much success there in the NFL due to the increase in talent at the cornerback position. But he’ll still win on occasion, especially if an offensive coordinator is able to use picks and rubs near the goal line to help him create that necessary separation.
Hardy can be very productive in Atlanta, but how productive will depend on whether the Falcons will tailor their offensive system to his skill set similar to how Miami and New England have done with Landry and Welker, respectively.
Hardy will likely be used in the slot from the start and probably won’t stray too much from that path in the future. The slot role will likely be his job to lose heading into his first training camp since besides White, Hardy is the most natural fit there. If he doesn’t win the gig by the start of the season, there’s a very good chance that he’ll eventually be manning the spot by the time we reach the end of 2015.
One can easily see a future where Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Hardy develop a strong rapport, similar to ones developed between Ryan and White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez over the years. That may take the form of Ryan’s ability to read the defense pre-snap, seeing off coverage and making the adjustment at the line to throw a quick, easy completion to Hardy. In those instances, Hardy isn’t going to do a ton of damage after the catch. His inability to accelerate and run away from NFL-caliber defenders will limit him there. But if a defender takes a poor angle or is caught off-guard and out of position, Hardy has the quickness to exploit it for solid gains.
Should the Falcons’ running game struggle at times in 2015 and beyond, this sort of play-calling and adjustment can easily replace the ground attack in terms of keeping the offense on schedule. So one could easily see Hardy padding his production down the road, and potentially be the team’s leading receiver despite playing on the same team as Jones.
Hardy isn’t going to be a player that is going to create a ton of stuff on his won. Like other Falcons receivers, he’ll benefit primarily from the coverages that Jones’ presence dictates as Hardy should consistently see one-on-one matchups on the inside. A best-case scenario for the Hardy-Jones dynamic may be similar to that of Welker and Moss in New England.
But again that’ll depend on if the Falcons truly embrace Hardy’s abilities and tailor their offense to feature it. Douglas had a similar skillset, albeit with lesser hands but better speed. However during his prime, the Falcons offense was much more geared towards featuring the likes of White, Gonzalez and then Jones, with Douglas being underutilized.
Yet what bodes well for Hardy’s initial career path is that he won’t have such obstacles ahead of him. White is on the decline and Hester and Hankerson are simply role players that aren’t guaranteed to be long-term fixtures in Atlanta. The Falcons also don’t have a top-tier tight end that is going to be a focal point of the offense like Gonzalez was. If not by the end of his rookie season, opportunities almost certainly will open up for Hardy in his second season. Thus, there’s a much higher probability that the Falcons will feature the sort of offense that Hardy will thrive in over the course of his career than there ever was during Douglas’ initial career in Atlanta.
If not, then there’s every reason to think that Hardy will still be a very effective third option in the Falcons’ passing game. He may not wind up putting up the gaudy production of a player like Welker in his prime, but certainly can be a reliable underneath outlet that can win on third downs. If that is the case, then his performance will be more akin to veteran receivers like Hines Ward and Santana Moss at the ends of their respective careers. Like them, Hardy can be an effective secondary option to Jones on third downs.
Hardy probably won’t have a rookie season reminiscent to what Landry did last year likely due to the fact that he’ll have better veterans ahead of him in Atlanta than Landry did in Miami. And despite some recent exceptions, there is still notable adjustment period for most rookie receivers. Even though the mental aspects of the game should give Hardy a relatively low learning curve, the jump in athleticism and speed might prove more problematic.
But there is certainly a high probability that by the end of 2015, Hardy will be a fairly consistent option in the Falcons’ passing game and that upside only has room to grow in 2016. If he shows that growth as a rookie, then there is going to be a very high probability that the Falcons make the necessary adaptions to tailor their offense around him in 2016 and beyond with Hardy growing into that highly productive slot receiver that will be the de facto No. 2 option besides Jones for years to come.