One of Justin Fields’ former Georgia teammates seems to have some interest in potentially reuniting with the Chicago Bears quarterback in 2023 free agency.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman recently retweeted a highlight video of Fields unloading a deep ball to him for a touchdown back in college that, in the caption, referred to him as a “soon-to-be Bears” wide receiver. He also tagged Fields in his retweet with a suggestive trio of eyeball emojis, fueling speculation that Hardman may have an interest in signing with Chicago when he becomes a free agent on March 15.
Hardman is coming off a tough season in which an abdominal injury restricted him to just eight games in the regular season and prevented him from playing in the Super Bowl for the Chiefs. Before his injury, though, the 24-year-old speedster had been on a hot streak that saw him score six touchdowns over four games and become the first receiver in the Super Bowl era to score two rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown in the same game (Week 7 against San Francisco).
Hardman was also a steady No. 3 receiver for the Chiefs in his previous three seasons, averaging about 14.2 yards per reception on 124 total and playing in every game. He was part of their Super Bowl-winning 2019 roster as a second-round rookie.
Mecole Hardman Has Multiple Connections to Bears
Hardman and Fields didn’t have as long-running of a connection as it might sound. In fact, Fields was a backup during his lone season with Hardman at Georgia and threw just 39 total passes as a true freshman behind starter Jake Fromm. Clearly, though, Hardman still has a certain degree of respect for Fields as a passer and seems to have some level of interest in catching passes from the Bears quarterback again.
Fields also isn’t the only connection Hardman has to the Bears. Second-year general manager Ryan Poles was the director of the Chiefs’ college scouting department in the three years leading up to Hardman’s second-round selection in 2019 and spent Hardman’s first three years as a key member of Kansas City’s player personnel department. No doubt, Poles would have a clearer picture than most of the value that Hardman could potentially bring to the table as a free agent signing for the Bears.
The real question, though, is what does Poles think of Hardman now? The Chiefs spent a second-rounder on Hardman in 2019, but he hasn’t developed into a clear NFL starter despite being consistently available through his first three seasons. Even before his injury in 2022, free agents such as Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster were doing a better job of stepping up to fill the void Tyreek Hill left behind. Maybe Hardman’s underperformance will work to the advantage of the Bears, but it might also ward them off from even trying to sign him to the roster.
Will Bears Nail Down True No. 1 Receiver for 2023?
The Bears could realistically sign someone like Hardman in free agency without having to worry too much about the cap ramifications, but it doesn’t solve their problem of needing a true No. 1 wide receiver for Fields and their offense.
The Bears have laid the foundation for their receiving corps with Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool set to return as starters and each highly motivated to perform in the final year of their respective rookie contracts. They also have a few quality depth pieces in place between Equanimeous St. Brown (extended in January) and 2022 third-round pick Velus Jones Jr., who had minimal offensive involvement as a rookie last season. Adding a high-quality veteran to the mix, however, could help them truly unlock the potential in Fields’ passing abilities.
Unfortunately, the Bears won’t have too many options on the open market in terms of leading receiver candidates. New England’s Jakobi Meyers and Detroit’s D.J. Chark are two of the better players set to have their contracts expire next week, but neither one of them has proven to be a true No. 1 receiver at this point in their career. There are also a few older veterans with injury histories, such as Odell Beckham Jr. or Michael Thomas, who could appeal, but none of them provide sure-thing solutions for the offense.
If the Bears really want to take a big swing at receiver, there are two options that make the most sense. One would be trying to pry away a proven veteran from a struggling team that has other interests besides paying a big-money contract to a receiver. The Cincinnati Bengals seemingly shut down Tee Higgins as a trade candidate the NFL Scouting Combine in early March, but the Bears could always inquire about other young stars, such as D.J. Moore or Michael Pittman Jr.
The Bears could also potentially position themselves for one of the top receivers in the 2023 draft class — former Fields teammate Jaxon Smith-Njiba anyone? — depending on what type of trade-back deal(s) they accept for the No. 1 overall pick. Taking a receiver in the top five would probably be against their best interests, but if they move down to somewhere between No. 9 overall (Carolina) or No. 11 (Tennessee), they could decide securing a top pass-catcher on a long-term rookie deal is the answer for their team.