Hardy's rookie task a tall order: score often (Photo Source)
Score. The Buffalo Bills could not do enough it of last year, but as a junior wide receiver at Indiana University, James Hardy did plenty of it. In 2007, Bills quarterbacks (helped out once by running back Marshawn Lynch) threw 12 touchdown passes. In 2007, Hardy notched 16 receiving touchdowns by himself.
So, naturally, Hardy's rookie season in Buffalo comes with lofty expectations. He is very likely to start immediately next to veteran receiver Lee Evans, who also saw a significant statistical drop-off last season. Hardy's 6'5", 217-pound frame makes him a full head taller than any other Bills receiver; and, because of that height, Hardy's expectations are even larger than normal.
What, then, can be considered a "successful" rookie season for Hardy? We've heard all of the cautions about rookie receivers and how they generally don't produce in their inaugural NFL campaigns. But it's clear that the Bills need something out of Hardy this season. In order to get an idea of what a player like Hardy has done historically as a rookie, I decided to compile a little data. Here's a list of rookie receiver numbers, with two criteria to make the list - these receivers are all at least 6'3" in height, and save the anomaly year (see below), all were drafted in the first two rounds.
2003 - Receivers go #2 and #3 overall in the draft
- Charles Rogers, WR, Detroit (Round 1): 22 receptions, 243 yards, 3 TD
- Andre Johnson, WR, Houston (Round 1): 63 receptions, 688 yards, 2 TD
- Tyrone Calico, WR, Tennessee (Round 2): 18 receptions, 297 yards, 4 TD
2004 - The year of the "big receiver"
- Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona (Round 1): 58 receptions, 780 yards, 8 TD
- Roy Williams, WR, Detroit (Round 1): 45 receptions, 687 yards, 8 TD
- Reggie Williams, WR, Jacksonville (Round 1): 35 receptions, 445 yards, 0 TD
- Michael Clayton, WR, Tampa Bay (Round 1): 80 receptions, 1139 yards, 7 TD
- Michael Jenkins, WR, Atlanta (Round 1): 36 receptions, 508 yards, 3 TD
2005 - Looking for a Larry/Clayton repeat
- Braylon Edwards, WR, Cleveland (Round 1): 32 receptions, 512 yards, 3 TD
- Mike Williams, WR, Detroit (Round 1): 8 receptions, 99 yards, 1 TD
- Matt Jones, WR, Jacksonville (Round 1): 36 receptions, 432 yards, 5 TD
- Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego (Round 2): 3 receptions, 59 yards, 0 TD
2006* - Well, that didn't work. No big receivers early!
- Maurice Stovall, WR, Tampa Bay (Round 3): 7 receptions, 102 yards, 0 TD
- Brandon Marshall, WR, Denver (Round 4): 20 receptions, 309 yards, 2 TD
2007 - The shortage of tall wideouts early continues
- Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit (Round 1): 48 receptions, 756 yards, 4 TD
- Sidney Rice, WR, Minnesota (Round 2): 31 receptions, 396 yards, 4 TD
Tall receivers don't buck the trend - this group was still wildly inconsistent across the board as rookies. Part of it was opportunity - guys like Calico, Jenkins, Jackson and Marshall did not get an awful lot of playing time as rookies (though some of them did have surprisingly nice stat lines considering their scenario - see Marshall). Others had plenty of opportunity and produced (Fitzgerald, Johnson, Roy Williams), while others failed to make good on their opportunity (Rogers, Mike Williams - poor Detroit).
One thing is certain - Hardy will have plenty of opportunity to produce in Buffalo. Given his size, he is not the quickest athlete nor the most fluid cutter in his route-running. For those reasons, don't get your hopes up for Fitzgerald-like rookie production; 45-50 receptions as a rookie should be considered above average. The Bills have players to move between the twenties as it is. Where Hardy will make his mark early is in the paint.
Yet this list above - despite their height - didn't produce scores at an overwhelming rate either. Merely taking an average and tweaking for circumstance, the Bills should consider themselves fortunate if Hardy gives them between 4 and 6 scores as a rookie. Is that enough production for the team to be successful offensively in 2008? That depends on what type of ripple effect those numbers have on his teammates' numbers. What's important to remember is this: even a 5-touchdown season from Hardy gives the Bills nearly half of their aerial touchdown total from 2007. An average rookie season from Hardy therefore spells improvement.