Everyone has heard the narrative about rookie wide receivers under Kansas City head coach Andy Reid: it is incredibly difficult to crack the lineup as a first-year wideout thanks to the complex system.
A player like Mecole Hardman was an exception, using his elite speed to rack up 538 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2019. The rule is more like Skyy Moore, who only totaled 267 receiving yards and one touchdown in the final game.
This season, second-round selection Rashee Rice will be testing that theory. Even with such a deep room of wide receivers, Rice has stood out this preseason — and is making the case to break the perceived value of a rookie receiver in the Chiefs’ offense.
I looked at his performance from the first two preseason games to strengthen his argument:
Playmaking from the slot
This preseason, Rice has lined up in the slot on 65% of his snaps. It was the highest rate among the first and second-team wide receivers, a statistic that may catch some off guard. Rice measured in at 6’1” and 204 lbs. at the NFL Combine, then compared his game to All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins.
That doesn’t sound like the traditional slot receiver, but it’s typical for the Chiefs to like size in that spot. JuJu Smith-Schuster made plays from that alignment, and so did Sammy Watkins a few years back.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes agrees, comparing the rookie to Watkins in his post-game press conference last week.
The comparison comes from each’s physical skill set, being able to move effectively in open space with enough size to brush off arm tackles but also explode through seams; Rice recorded a 1.49-second 10-yard split at the NFL Combine, a mark that is in the 93rd percentile for receiver prospects historically.
At 6'1" & 204, Rice gets going quickly into open space. A reminder that his 1.49 sec 10-yard split was 93rd percentile for WRs historically— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 22, 2023
The acceleration + size is why Mahomes compared him to Sammy Watkins, and why they'll keep feeding him on screens & other quick hitters pic.twitter.com/stxJgUIsx7
It’s why you have seen the Chiefs get the ball in Rice’s hands quickly this preseason. On this quick screen, Rice explodes up the field and weaves through traffic for a big gain. He has also received jet-sweep handoffs and other quick-hitting plays.
Rashee Rice's two biggest plays this preseason show how shifty he can be before AND after the catch— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 23, 2023
Absolutely loses Isaiah Simmons on the post-corner
Then puts a nasty juke on the Safety after the slant pic.twitter.com/ti043uymuW
At the same time, Rice has shown effective wiggle before and after the catch, helping him win on routes or create more yards after the catch. On this first play, Rice fakes an inside route downfield then breaks outside, doing it so quickly that he completely loses his defender in man coverage.
On the second play, Rice catches a slant on the run, then uses a nasty juke move to get past the safety coming down on him. Again, this burst and change of direction is unique for Rice’s size, just like it was for Watkins.
The little things
Rice is the team’s receiving leader this preseason, catching 11 of his 13 targets and turning them into 126 yards. The two targets not completed right in his hands and dropped. We can acknowledge them while also understanding they don’t tell us too much about future production.
Outside of a few drops, Rashee Rice has shown strength at the catch point this preseason— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 22, 2023
Takes a hard hit after each catch here. Hangs on through each, but doesn't go down on the 2nd one #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/gdlv3ER6K9
In the targets around those drops, Rice showed off toughness at the catch point. He secures both of these passes before taking a good hit. On the first one, veteran safety Jonathan Abram had a great form tackle and drove Rice into the ground after going at full speed, yet Rice bounced right back up with the ball secured.
On the second play, Rice takes a blindside tackle from the cornerback and stays up through the contact. His size allows him to absorb it, which can make him a more reliable tight-window target.
Love this effort from Rice on the stalk block pic.twitter.com/bAtv8GRKXU— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 22, 2023
His size also makes him a more desirable blocker than other receivers who can man the slot for Kansas City. In the first video, you see the Chiefs trust Rice to block an edge rusher in order to seal the rollout of Mahomes. There are more physically-overwhelming ends than the player Rice had to block here, but it still shows the Chiefs’ trust in him to help protect Mahomes.
In the next video, you see great effort and tenacity from Rice as he blocks a cornerback on the perimeter of a run play. These plays are an example of how he could be on the field over players like Moore or Kadarius Toney on a given play. He brings a blocking element that could be more important over the course of a game depending on the matchup.
His time with the starters
Among the 26 snaps Mahomes has taken this preseason, Rice has been on the field for 11 of them. That’s the fourth most of the team’s receivers that have played this preseason, and only one snap behind Justin Watson in third.
Rice has had rookie moments, like these 2 drops + a false start— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 22, 2023
But even these drops show how Rice can be weaponized. Each of these plays are designed to get the ball to him w/ momentum into space
The 2nd is an RPO slant from 15, a go-to way for KC to get playmakers in space pic.twitter.com/mglHw3KO2T
His involvement is a good sign, but it’s how he has been involved — even on the two drops he had this preseason. The first play is with the second-team offense, but it’s an example of the team wanting to get him the ball with momentum into space.
On the second play, Rice is featured as the primary route in one of the Chiefs’ staple plays: a run-pass option that combines a basic run concept with a slant route, one that Mahomes will target if he sees the linebackers bite too hard on the run action.
It’s one of Kansas City’s favorite ways to get playmakers into space, and putting Rice in that spot with the starters shows the Chiefs are interested in using him that way.
The bottom line
It’s easy to overlook Rice as an impactful player this year, especially with how many people he has to compete with for playing time. On top of that, he’s a rookie in the Chiefs’ system.
However, Rice has done nearly everything right on the field this preseason to buck that trend. If he continues showing these skills against harder competition, it will be impossible to keep him out of the regular rotation.