Months from now, it may be defined as the decision that saved or sank the Buffalo Bills' offense. One season after Steve Fairchild – Mike Martz's brainchild – drove the unit into oblivion last year, new faces were not pursued.
Until Saturday. With the 41st overall pick, the league's 30th ranked passing offense received its first significant offensive addition this off-season. Indiana wide receiver James Hardy will receive minimal competition from Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish for the starting spot opposite of Lee Evans, because he's exactly what Buffalo needs.
But the second-round pick easily could have been invested on someone else. An abundance of offensive talent was available after New Orleans drafted Hardy's practice rival, Indiana corner Tracy Porter. There were weapons galore still sprawled out on sofas: USC tight end Fred Davis, California receiver/returner DeSean Jackson, Oklahoma wideout Malcolm Kelly, Texas' Limas Sweed and Texas A&M tight end (and former Aggies basketball player) Martellus Bennett.
The deciding factor is oh so obvious. Last season Buffalo fielded the most diminutive wide receiver unit in the NFL. Each of the Bills' top four wideouts would be turned away at the six-foot minimum roller-coaster. So, the choice was easy – the draft's most physically imposing wide receiver, the 6-foot-6 Hardy. It will take at least three years to gauge whether Buffalo handpicked the best player from this talent-laden bunch, but it will only take five months for Hardy to get his shot, unlike the others.
And he's the right man for the right offense.
- Crossing out Jackson was easy. The California receiver should have been a first round pick. He's electric in the open field, eerily resembling Devin Hester. His swivel hips, quick backward hop step to evade hits on punt returns and natural stop-and-start elusiveness will make him just as slippery in the NFL as he was at Cal. But at 6-foot, 175 lbs., Jackson doesn't diversify the Bills' offense. Two undersized receivers on a run-oriented offense led by a short-yardage, second year quarterback? That's an identity crisis waiting to self-destruct.
- Kelly sealed his fate at Oklahoma's second pro day after a pair of sluggish 40 times (4.75 and 4.68). Penciled in as the Bills' first round pick for months in many mock drafts, Kelly plummeted into the second round and past Buffalo twice. The Bills had scouts at the pro day, which was in all likelihood where Kelly was officially black-listed. Struggling in the most influential drill and blaming others for it cost Kelly a lot of money and a shot to start in Buffalo.
- The Bills' real dilemma was most likely whether or not to take a tight end. The front office did pick up Courtney Anderson from the free agent leftover bin, but he's hardly the answer to Buffalo's inconsistency between the 20-yard lines. Davis and Bennett are two prospects that would have eventually beat out Anderson and Royal for the No. 1 TE job and become one of Edwards' favorite targets. The sticking point? The ceiling. The odds are, Davis or Bennett will have seasons similar to last season's top tight end drafted, Greg Olsen. With Chicago, Olsen had 39 receptions for 391 yards and three touchdowns.
- The Bills needed a receiver on the roster who could make an immediate impact now . After missing out on Bryant Johnson back in early March, Buffalo entered the draft without a legitimate No. 2 wide receiver. It was foregone conclusion that the offense needed to land a wide receiver within the first three rounds. With Leodis McKelvin falling into their laps, the front office waited until the second.
Fortune was again on Buffalo's side. The 6-6 Hardy scores touchdowns at the same rate snipers score points in hockey: 36 TDs in 36 games. It was not uncommon for Hardy to single-handedly dominate games with the Hoosiers. Against Penn State last fall he caught 14 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Mind you, this consistent juggernaut production came against premier, Big 10 competition. Last year he totaled 79 catches, 1,125 yards and 16 scores. All of this, and Hardy originally attended Indiana to play basketball.
Last season, the Bills registered 12 touchdown passes as a team for one reason. No red-zone target. Even if he never is able to gain separation on NFL corners, as his skeptics predict, Hardy will almost certainly amp up Buffalo's offense inside the 20s. Out will be Fairchild's over-cute gimmick plays. In will be lobs to Hardy. It's the one play, 5-foot-10 corners know is coming but usually can't stop. From day one, Hardy should improve Buffalo's pathetic red zone offense, which scored six only 13 touchdowns in 34 appearences (38 TD percent).
Hardy catches a jump ball over Penn State's Justin King
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Hardy will keep Rian Lindell off the field.
An underrated aspect of Hardy's makeup is that he battled against top-notch competition every day in practice against Porter, who was taken one slot ahead of him. He understands the daily grind it takes to improve, an attitude top-rated rookie wide receivers often lack. A couple weeks before the draft one NFL rep even said that Hardy should be taken in the top 15.
Why the wait? Character. In 2006, Hardy was charged with domestic battery of his girlfriend of seven years. In the Pacman/Vick/Tank Era, any character doubt will surely count as a strike against the prospect. Hardy bounced back from the incident to post a banner 2007 campaign as a junior and enter the draft a year early.
If this was an isolated, out-of-character ordeal, Buffalo has secured a gem. While not a burner, Hardy will instantly become a viable red zone target, an area the Bills have struggled in since Eric Moulds' heyday. He contrasts from Evans, a pure deep threat. Together (and with a little help from Anderson and Reed), the Bills' passing offense could return to respectability.
And really, that's all head coach Dick Jauron needs. With a potentially lethal running back duo of Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson running behind Buffalo's best offensive line since the early 90s, all Edwards needs to do is simplify the game.
Drafting the 6-foot-6, 220-pound receiver is a big first step. The wait through free agency and the first round of the draft was worth it.
Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at email@example.com.