Justin Hardy: Improved play made Hankerson expendable


Justin Hardy has finally adjusted to playing at the NFL level. His improved play ultimately allowed the Atlanta Falcons to part ways with Leonard Hankerson.

The Atlanta Falcons had high hopes when drafting the NCAA’s all-time receptions leader in wide receiver Justin Hardy out of East Carolina with their fourth round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Some in the front office felt that he could become an heir apparent of sorts to the great Falcons pass catcher in Roddy White. White, like Hardy, played in a mid-major collegiately and needed some time before getting adjusted to playing in the NFL.

After reeling in at least one reception in every game he’s played in the NFL, Justin Hardy’s gradual improvement ultimately made the often-injured wide receiver Leonard Hankerson expendable by the club. Atlanta initially put him on season-ending IR, but later removed him in favor of waiving the former Miami Hurricane.

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It may stand as the best move for all involved as Hankerson could sign with anybody else for the rest of 2015, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said that Hankerson wasn’t part of the team’s long-term plans, and it would give Hardy move of an opportunity to develop a rapport with starting quarterback Matt Ryan in the final three weeks of 2015.

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In six games, Justin Hardy has 12 receptions on 22 targets for 109 yards. His long is only been 23 yards, but Ryan does like Hardy’s steady hands and his ability to possession receive. Hankerson had a proclivity to dropping a lot of passes from Ryan, who throws one of the most catchable balls in the NFL.

Hardy’s stats are by no means staggering, but it is the confidence that head coach Dan Quinn projects in him that I find most appealing. It seems as though the Hankerson signing was to serve as a stop-gap acquisition by getting a player well-versed in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s West Coast system while Hardy learned how to become a professional.

Going from the AAC to the NFL as a fourth round receiver is a big step up in terms of competition. It took until Week 8 at home versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Atlanta Falcons to put Justin Hardy on their active roster.

With three weeks left, Hardy could join defensive Grady Jarrett and running back Tevin Coleman as members of the 2015 Atlanta Falcons Draft Class that had good seasons. First round pick defensive end Vic Beasley has not flourished on a toothless Falcons pass rush. Second round pick Jalen Collins has made some head-scratching errors in pass coverage in his rookie season.

Next: Atlanta Falcons waive Hankerson, put Moore on IR

Atlanta is not going to make the NFC Playoffs barring some miraculous circumstances in the final three weeks to get to the sixth seed. However, there are still intriguing players on the team to keep an eye on in the last three games, one of whom is rookie wide receiver Justin Hardy. Does he become a reliable receiving target for Matt Ryan, who has only had Julio Jones for the better part of the season? It’s Hardy’s time to shine for the Atlanta Falcons. Rise Up!