The Atlanta Falcons face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFC South matchup at the Georgia Dome. Here are photos from gameday.
For most NFL draft picks, especially those taken beyond the first and second rounds, lots of patience is needed to build fruitful careers. Prospects who tolerate early setbacks and steep learning curves oftentimes put themselves on track for long-term success; those who don't, however, make it difficult to reach their potential.
Upon joining the Falcons, Justin Hardy quickly realized he wouldn't be a major contributor from the start. The young wide receiver didn't have to worry about a playbook much at East Carolina, and instead broke the NCAA receptions record by thriving in a spread, no-huddle system. Obviously football is different in the pros than the American Athletic Conference, so the fourth-rounder had a bit of catching up to do. And he knew it.
Rather than sulk throughout this transitional period, Hardy, who became a star at ECU after walking on as a freshman, used it as a chance to fine-tune areas that needed improvement. He studied hard. He approached every practice like he was on the verge of being activated. And, with so much talent around him, he absorbed all the knowledge he could from his peers.
"He got drafted, then he was inactive for seven weeks. Especially a young guy, he could get down on himself," said Julio Jones. "But not Justin. He came to work every day."
All that's beginning to pay off. Hardy on Sunday made his Falcons debut and looked like a natural fit, gathering 21 receiving yards on two grabs—both of which moved the chains. He also caught a seven-yard pass that would have brought Atlanta within three yards of the end zone, but it was called back due to a chop block infraction.
With Nick Williams and Leonard Hankerson sidelined, the 23-year-old jumped into action and gave Matt Ryan a reliable target from a variety of alignments.
"We have the mentality of one man down, next man up," Jones said. "Justin, he can play. He can catch the ball, for sure. You can see from his college stats. Great hands. He's going to be a big part of our offense moving forward."