Hardy's injury caps disappointing rookie year

When Buffalo drafted James Hardy in the 2nd round last April, it appeared the team had finally found a complement to Lee Evans. Not so much. The tall rookie was a major letdown this season, says BFR's Tyler Dunne...

And the beat goes on.

A decade-old will persist for yet another season. The Buffalo Bills are destined to lack a potent No. 2 wide receiver.

James Hardy sure had the look of a NFL star coming out of Indiana. At a listed 6-foot-6 (he's more like 6-5, or even 6-4), Hardy snagged 36 touchdowns in 36 games --- a good chunk of them coming in the rough and tumble Big Ten Conference. Buffalo, starving for a No. 2 wideout since Peerless Price's one-hit wonder in 2002, gobbled Hardy up 41st overall in the 2008 NFL Draft.

He was the antidote, the possession-receiver complement to Lee Evans' wheels.

Or so we all thought. Like countless rookie wide receivers, Hardy struggled to adjust to the pro game. Just another lemming. Hardy rarely got onto the field despite a lackluster receiving corps. When he did play, he often appeared awkward, lanky and was a complete non-event.

Now, his season is over. After tearing a ligament in his left knee Sunday, Hardy was officially placed on injured reserve. Head coach Dick Jauron said there was more damage to Hardy's knee than initially thought and he'll need surgery. Jauron does expect him to be ready for next season.

It was a premature end to a frustrating season, from start-to-finish. James Hardy's struggles date back to early May when he allegedly pulled a gun at his father during an argument. Naturally, this incident was snug under the rug and all-but written off by the general public as a rookie mistake. Hardy glided through training camp without making any sort of noticeable impact, and he never turned the corner in the regular season.

Worse than his meager production (87 yards and 2 touchdowns in 13 games), Hardy was downright lost on the field at times. Soft on his routes --- when he ran them right --- the rookie offered minimal flashes of promise. The only bulb of hope was his game-winning touchdown snag at Jacksonville in week two. Even that was a Pop Warner-level lob. When starting wideout Josh Reed missed three games with an ankle injury, Hardy was still M.I.A. The Bills' passing game never took flight as the offense currently only has 13 passing touchdowns (tied for 25th in the NFL).

Over the season, 7th round pick Steve Johnson outplayed Hardy and moved ahead of him in the lineup. Johnson is more of the tough-over-the-middle receiver Buffalo needs.

Johnson catches the ball with attitude, he attacks it. In less than half of the playing time, Johnson has as many catches (nine) and more yards (99) than Hardy. For a receiving unit that will probably see some kind of shakeup this offseason (you'd hope), Johnson certainly has a step on Hardy now with the latter's injury.

Then again, maybe Hardy will mature with time. After all, expecting rookie wide receivers to produce is like asking New York's Governor David Paterson to lower taxes. Forget about it. A year to mentally digest a pro-style offense will benefit Hardy. It could have been much, much worse too. Kudos to Russ Brandon for bypassing Devin Thomas in the first round for Leodis McKelvin. In Washington, Thomas has been a bust thus far (14 receptions for 103 yards).

Then again, when Buffalo could have drafted Eddie Royal or DeSean Jackson, it's hard to sympathize for Hardy. The Bills sought a big receiver to match with the diminutive Evans. In hindsight, snagging the best overall offensive weapon would have been a better course of action. Royal has emerged into one of Jay Cutler's best weapons, catching 75 passes for 847 yards and five touchdowns. Buffalo could have had this connection. (See that story here.) Jackson, meanwhile, has defied the pattern of horrid Philadelphia Eagles' receivers (852 yards, 14.7 per catch).

Hopefully, the Hardy pick doesn't haunt Buffalo's offense for too long. His injury is no doubt a disappointing setback.

thdunne@gmail.com

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