The 24-year old Hardin is listed at 6'3" and 217 pounds and was a third round pick in the 2012 draft. He has never played in an NFL regular season game, following some injury issues. However, he did play in six preseason games before the Bears released him in August. The Jets picked him up in January.
After the jump, I look in detail at footage from the last two preseasons to evaluate some what Hardin brings to the table.
Who is Brandon Hardin?
Hardin had a productive college career, where he was actually a cornerback, but missed his entire senior season after injuring his shoulder and requiring surgery. He returned to action in the East West Shrine Game and then had a monster pro day with great numbers across the board, including a 4.43 forty. Had he not missed his senior year, most experts agreed he would have been a much more heralded prospect, but when the Bears selected him in the third round it was considered a reach.
The Bears immediately announced that they would be converting Hardin to safety and he was the second string free safety as the preseason got underway in his rookie year. However, he suffered a scary neck injury in the second game and was placed on injured reserve shortly after. In 2013, he was unable to climb any further up the depth chart in preseason, before a broken scapula in the last preseason game sealed his fate.
Let's look in detail at his six preseason appearances.
Week 1 - Denver
Hardin was only credited with one tackle in this game but was in on several others. The one tackle he got credit for was on a 20-yard completion down the sideline where the cornerback seemed to pass off the receiver to him, but he had to cover the deep middle.
His best play saw him range across the field to jump in front of a long pass down the left sideline. That could have been an interception but the ball bounced off his hands as he may have slightly mistimed his jump. On another play he closed well on the intended receiver running down the seam, but the pass was batted down by a linebacker.
There were three plays where if you were being harsh you could say he missed a tackle. The first of these saw the runner slip away from him inside the five only to be immediately tackled by someone else before gaining any more yardage. On the second he overpursued out to the sideline on a run to the outside and the running back cut back inside for another 5-10 yards. On the last one, he actually stopped the runner at the second level, but he was able to squirm free and fall forwards for a few extra yards.
There were a couple of moments of slight hesitancy, notably on these two touchdowns (here and here - Hardin is #35), literally for just a split second each time, but where without any hesitation he might have prevented the runner from breaking the plane each time.
On special teams, there was one play where he was initially employed as a vice, double teaming the gunner, but he ran downfield and then peeled off to get a good contact to slow up another player on the kicking team in the open field. However, he didn't finish the block and this player did still end up making the tackle. He was also employed as a punt protector, getting downfield first on one punt, but overpursuing to let the return man get upfield.
Week 2 - Washington
This was the game where Hardin suffered his scary neck injury. It came on a blown coverage where he reacted quickly to make a downfield tackle on a tight end to limit the yardage to 19, but lowered his head and injured his neck while making the hit.
Prior to that, he had only been in for a handful of plays. On one, he was in a good position in coverage downfield on an overthrown ball, but perhaps would have had a chance at an interception had he been able to locate the ball while it was in the air rather than focusing on the receiver the whole time.
Week 1 - at Carolina
Hardin played 26 snaps in this game, all in the second half. He had one downfield tackle, but did okay in coverage. He was in good position on one play where the quarterback threw wide, perhaps on purpose, as Hardin had the closest receiver covered. On another, the quarterback looked for Hardin's man on a hot route, but the receiver never looked back for the ball. Hardin reacted well, but should have intercepted this and probably would have scored. He dropped the ball that hit him right in the numbers. On another play, a pass was deflected but he was unable to react fast enough to have a shot at picking it off.
Week 2 - San Diego
Hardin played 25 snaps in this game, mostly in the third quarter. He played on the first series of the fourth quarter and returned for the last play of the game, which was a Hail Mary pass that was overthrown and he leapt up to bat safely out of the back of the end zone, although it obviously wasn't going to be caught anyway.
He got in on a couple of tackles in the running game, including one play where he came up from deep to avoid a pulling lineman and prevent a runner from turning the corner on an outside run, making the stop for a two yard gain.
Week 3 - at Oakland
In this game, Hardin only played in the fourth quarter but still saw action on 17 plays. He had two downfield tackles on 22 and 21 yard completions over the middle where he was playing deep. He was targeted once, for this touchdown. On the play, Hardin (still #35) got caught up in traffic on a rub route and didn't take a particularly good angle. Again, he could have helped himself by anticipating better here.
Week 4 - Cleveland
The final preseason game usually features backups, so you might expect Hardin (who started) to perform better in this one, but it was actually his worst game by some margin. Having said that, the Browns starters did do some of the damage, including on the first play of the game where they threw a 45-yard bomb to Josh Gordon. The cornerback passed Gordon off to Hardin downfield and Hardin didn't react fast enough as he initially went to cover the same slot receiver as the cornerback. On another early play, Hardin came up too fast and overpursued on a slant route, allowing Gordon to turn the corner upfield.
Hardin was used in direct coverage a lot more in this game and did not fare well. On one play he picked up a tight end running a post pattern and couldn't prevent a 21-yard completion. That was pretty tight coverage though and he almost got a finger on the ball. On another play, he was matched up with a receiver in the slot for the only time all preseason, but the outside receiver came underneath and Hardin failed to react to this in time, getting turned around and leaving him open for 12 over the middle.
As if this wasn't bad enough, there were also three plays where he didn't get over in time from center field, leading to two first downs and this touchdown. He wasn't in direct coverage on these plays, so it's hard to blame him for them, but they were plays where an elite player would perhaps be expected to break it up.
There were a couple of plays where he was in a better position, although the receiver slipped on one and the other was a bad overthrow. He injured himself late in the game, but might have been due to be a final cut anyway following this disappointing finish to the preseason.
There are many reports out there saying that Hardin was employed as a strong safety in Chicago. This is inaccurate. Hardin was employed as a deep safety, often single-high. In 2013, he was only in the box 14 times in 121 snaps and his role in 2012 was essentially the same.
Any time you get a former cornerback moving into a safety role, that can be an advantage in coverage. However, Hardin was mostly employed in coverage support rather than in direct coverage.
Hardin did a disciplined job of keeping things in front of him, but there were times where he reacted a beat late or failed to anticipate something with the ball in the air. There were occasional flashes of him breaking well to the ball, but not many.
Hardin's measurables are incredible and obviously the reason he was drafted so high despite injury concerns. The Bears are apparently adopting a "maximum ceiling" approach to their draft strategy and this fits in with that. While there were instances where he showcased this athleticism (and he's an impressive physical specimen that looks more like a linebacker than a defensive back), he was so hesitant at times that this mitigated some of those gifts.
One thing I noticed from Hardin was that there were a lot of plays where he came up but then pulled up short of getting in on the tackle. I know Jets fans in recent years have been frustrated at what they perceive to be "shying away from contact" by the likes of Kerry Rhodes and Antonio Cromartie and it's difficult to determine whether that's what this was or if Hardin was just being extremely disciplined in terms of keeping the play in front of him. I lean towards the latter, because there were a couple of plays where he did actually lay the lumber on a ball carrier that was held up in that situation although I expect there was some degree of uncertainty in his new position and over-cautiousness in terms of not wanting to make a mistake. It's possible he was tentative in certain situations due to some of his injuries, but most of the time he would break himself down as he arrived at the ball, which is certainly preferable to a safety coming up too fast and overpursuing (although he did do this once or twice).
As noted, he wasn't employed in direct coverage much, so I couldn't really comment on his physicality in coverage based on the footage viewed.
As he wasn't in the box very often, Hardin didn't really contribute much as a run defender. He got in on a few tackles at the second level, but there was only one play where he came up and stopped a run. That was on an outside run where he came up from deep. He did run blitz a few times, but the run went the other way each time.
This ties in with the last few sections, but Hardin didn't make a ton of tackles, nor did he miss too many bad ones. He had a few plays where he took a bad angle and overpursued, but not many instances of having a runner wrapped up and letting him get away. There were, however, a few times where he didn't quite make a clean stop, enabling the runner to fall forward and a few other times where he hesitated when going to make a tackle allowing costly yardage.
Hardin only blitzed once and only had one sack in his college career. However, his combination of speed and size (he's basically the same size as Rhodes) could mean he'd be good at this in a special packages role.
It doesn't seem like Hardin has very good hands. He dropped one easy interception and there were a few other plays where he might have been able to pick the ball off. Part of that was perhaps down to him failing to anticipate and react in time, though, rather than his ability to catch the ball. He did have one interception and eight passes defensed in two years at Oregon State. He did get his hands on a few balls and jumped a few routes, but could have done a better job of being alert to tipped or overthrown passes in his area.
Since he was playing a new position, we should probably give Hardin a pass here, but there was a constant sense he was a beat slow to react and occasional confusion over what he should do in a given situation. It reminded me of Demario Davis' rookie season. If he could start to get more comfortable in his role, Hardin would start to make a lot more plays because he'd arrive half a step sooner.
Hardin made some minor contributions on special teams. He was employed as a punt protector, on the punt rush unit, as a secondary vice when doubling a gunner and blocking on the kick return unit. He'll likely need to shine in these roles and also in kick coverage (where he had one assist as a tackler) to have a realistic shot at a roster spot.
As noted, Hardin is yet another player who became available because of major injury concerns. Whether any of these will pan out remains to be seen, but there's potential upside in a lot of them. To recap, he missed 2011 after shoulder surgery, had a serious neck injury in 2012 and then broke his scapula last August.
I could not find any details of any off-field issues for Hardin.
Yes, of course, this is another long-shot that depends primarily on whether Hardin can get healthy. Even if he can, he still has to prove he can make the transition to safety.
While completing this analysis, I was reminded of Jaiquawn Jarrett, another high draft pick safety who also struggled before being released early in his second season. Since he did make the team and - other than that one play Jimmy Graham made on him - acquitted himself pretty well, that's an interesting re-read for context.
The Jets do have several promising safeties under 25 and may even add another in the draft next weekend, so competition is high. However, there are places up for grabs. The main thing Hardin brings to the table that none of the other safeties do is his size and speed combo.
Hardin did show inexperience at times, but wasn't constantly making bad mistakes. While it looks likely he'll end up as a story of unfulfilled promise, you can't blame the Jets for giving him one last shot.
That wraps up our look at the guys the Jets have added to the roster since the end of the season. We'll be back with some more analytical stuff after the draft, including articles on Dee Milliner and Quinton Coples.