Hailing from East Carolina University, Justin Hardy had three 1,000 yard seasons before he graduated and pursued a future in professional football. Now nearly a decade later he is re-signing with the first professional team that aided him to a 1,000 yard season.
Ottawa Retains Another Breakout Player from 2023
After a college career that saw him average over 1,000 yards, and just under 10 touchdowns per season for four years straight, it looked as if Hardy would be able to carve out a solid professional career. It looked even more possible after he was drafted in round four by the Atlanta Falcons. This gave him a foot in the door, and a chance to make a name for himself.
He would go on the play through his rookie contract with Atlanta before returningfor a fourth season. After the 2019 season he wound up sitting out the 2020 season and ultimately signing with Chicago headed in to year six of his career. To this point, he had not established himself as a starting caliber receiver in the NFL, but he has produced 95 receptions for 946 yards and 9 touchdowns with Atlanta. An average of 19 receptions for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns a year solid numbers for a potential WR4 in the NFL.
Despite this, he saw little interest in free agency prior to the 2020 season. He would work out with two NFC West teams with both opting not to sign him at the time. This left him to prepare for the 2021 season. At the time he didn’t have any other options available to him with the AAF shutting down in 2019, and Covid causing the CFL, XFL, IFL to shut down as well.
Hardy would take one last swing at the NFL in 2021 signing with Chicago in late July. Three weeks later he was released casting his career into uncertainty. After entering the league at 22 years old, Hardy now sat a 29 year old free agent wideout who hadn’t played in a regular season game for two years. Luckily for him his age didn’t scare Ottawa. They would offer him a contract in May of 2022.
Transitioning to CFL
Hardy jumped into the CFL and immediately looked like he belongs. Playing in just seven games in 2022 he was targeted 62 times just under 9 times a game. He produced 416 receiving yards, adding 1 carry for 5 yards, and 1 kick off for 19 yards. He was on pace to finish the season with 159 targets, 113 receptions, and 1,069 yards. This would have amounted to his first 1,000 yard season as a pro.
What likely was a tough pill to swallow for Hardy at the time, led to him coming back in 2023 motivated and ready to perform. Despite his astronomical target share dropping off in 2023, Hardy managed to cross that arbitrary benchmark for receivers regardless of league.
In ‘23, he averaged just 7 targets a game which was down from 8.85 in 2022. Despite seeing 127 targets on the year, Hardy’s yards per reception rose dramatically. From 9.5 in 2022, to 11.9 in 2023. This led him to produce 1,009 yards on his 85 receptions. He also added 2 kick returns for 57 yards. Hardy simply looking more explosive in 2023 than he had the year prior. Perhaps this was due to learning the game play on the fly, causing him to think before he acted. Now being more comfortable he was able to play more loose.
Now this isn’t necessarily the circumstances under which this saying was created, but there is a sentiment that receivers tend to really hit their stride in year three. This is now year three for Justin Hardy, could we see an even better year from in 2024? On paper it certainly looks like Ottawa will have more depth and top end talent at wide receiver to start the season after re-signing a healthy Bralon Addison, and Dominique Rhymes. They also brought in a pair of promising young wide receivers from the UFL as well.
We may see Hardy’s target share fall again, but if it goes hand in hand with his yards per reception rising I don’t think the Redblacks brass or Hardy will have any complaints.
In a corresponding move the Redblacks chose to release Nathaniel Behar. Behar was once a first round pick in the CFL Draft process by Edmonton in 2017. He did not immediately join the Eskimos due to a contract dispute that drug out until days before their first regular season game.
Starting off on the wrong foot, Behar and Edmonton had a somewhat rocky relationship from then on. Despite this he played his first two CFL seasons with them before joining Ottawa in 2019, after his contract expired. He would go on to spend the next three seasons with Ottawa opting to return after the canceled 2020 season.
During his time with Ottawa he became a regular face in the starting lineup. Of the 56 games he was active for he started 48 of them. His best season came in 2022 when he caught 59 passes for 727 yards and 2 touchdowns, he managed to log a 77.6% completion rate on passes thrown his way. Prior to 2022 he had never topped the 68% mark. Following this career season Ottawa signed Behar to a two year extension that placed Behar within the top 20 highest paid receivers along with running mate Jaelon Acklin. Also on that list: Bralon Addison (16) and Dominique Rhymes (10) albeit both were on other teams at the time. According to 3Down.
In 2023 he came back down to Earth and caught just 67.2% of his passes despite 18 fewer targets on the year. After a down year that made his extension look dramatically overpriced based on production, especially when you consider Justin Hardy led the team in many categories and was not on that list for Ottawa. Something tells me Hardy’s contract may have been the deciding factor in the decision to release Behar. Shedding cap obligations to pay Hardy to stay was always a likely scenario, and now it’s come to fruition.
Damon Webb Returns
Damon Webb returns for 2024 following a career year in 2023 with Ottawa. Originally making the jump to the CFL in 2020 after remaining on the NFL free agent market all year in 2019. Originally signing with Saskatchewan the Ohio State alum was a role player beginning in 2021.
For parts of two seasons with Saskatchewan he started just 5 games appearing in 12 total. He managed 28 tackles and 1 interception during his time on the field. He was let go midway through 2022 and signed by Ottawa where he IMMEDIATELY stepped into the starting lineup. He went on to start 9 games to finish the season. During his first 9 starts for Ottawa he collected 34 tackles, and 1 interception.
Finding a Home in Ottawa
Heading into 2023 Ottawa signed Webb to a one year contract extension. Webb proceeded to have a career year playing in 16 games starting 12. He managed career highs in tackles, sacks, interceptions, and interception return yards finishing the year with 63 tackles, 1 sack, and 3 interceptions for 67 return yards. Looking back at his collegiate career, Webb was bound to be a solid player in the professional ranks once he was given a true chance to start.
Coming out of Ohio State in the 2018 NFL Draft, as a strong safety Webb was a two year starter who had collected 117 tackles, and 6 interceptions for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns in his last 26 games. Prior to that he was buried on the depth chart. He played in 15 games collecting 13 tackles.
His pro-day/combine numbers displayed impressive strength and burst for his size with 17 reps in the bench, he also had a solid 10-yard split at 1.58. It appears Webb has now settled into the CFL, and having just turned 28 years old in November there’s a good chance we see him play out his career there. Ottawa certainly wouldn’t be upset if they get to retain Webb who quickly turned into a playmaker for this secondary in 2023.
If you’re a fan of the CFL check out our interview with LB Chizi Umankwe who most recently played for Ottawa in 2023.
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