Through the first two weeks of the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2023 season, the biggest questions surrounding the team continued to be about its wide receivers — but in Week 3, we finally had a breakout performance from a wideout: second-round rookie Rashee Rice.
During Kansas City’s 41-10 blowout of the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Rice was given more snaps and a more prominent role. The rookie made the most of the opportunity, leading the team’s wideouts by producing five catches on seven targets for 59 yards on just 51% of the team’s offensive snaps.
During his final year at SMU, Pro Football Focus says Rice played 17% of his snaps in the slot. But in three games with the Chiefs, he’s been in the slot more than three times as often: on 58% of his reps.
So how has this collegiate contested-catch specialist found an NFL role as a zone-beating slot receiver?
Let’s take a look.
A good slot receiver needs to be a dynamic vertical threat or an excellent blocker. Rice will never be a crazy burner, but he can certainly block.
Love to see Rashee blocking like this. KC running a counter run with Pacheco following the sift block as lead block, Rashee cracks the LB perfectly, sets up huge edge for explosive run. I think at his best, he's going to be a great blocker pic.twitter.com/aZVbcMQ3YX— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 26, 2023
Easiest way to get on the field as a WR is being a blocker. This is a pick play, but Rashee springs it blocking two at once. Small details like this and coaches will get you snaps pic.twitter.com/zE911EtB26— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 26, 2023
Rice has an ideal frame for the job — and while he had a rough day as a blocker in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions, Sunday’s game showed much improvement in understanding his assignments and angles. If he can continue to improve, Kansas City can use him as a blocker in the running game — especially from shotgun formations.
A slot receiver’s most important job, however, is to be able to identify coverages; a large portion of their route tree depends on whether the defense is running zone or man coverage. In certain looks, quarterbacks rely on the slot wideout to be a hot read: to quickly identify the coverage and find the right hole in the zone. Receivers who can do this build trust with their quarterbacks.
This is very simplistic stuff that'll get you on the field, but love this from Rashee. Switch release vs. C2, Rashee is the zone outlet vs MOFO. Perfect sitdown in his route, clears the defenders, turns upfield, should've been a TD— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 26, 2023
This is needed to play in the slot pic.twitter.com/3wN3HCUuzo
The spotdrops won't be this bad for most teams, but it's still cool to see Rashee know when to sitdown, where vacant gaps are, and when to turn and let Mahomes know. The ID skills are quick pic.twitter.com/2xtXc6KPOt— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 26, 2023
Love seeing the zone ID by the rookie. Kelce's running the pick to get him the switch release, perfect sitdown right in front of nickel, turn to ball, get upfield. This is dynamism from the slot in a way Juju wasn't able to provide last year pic.twitter.com/7bIzREJcXF— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 26, 2023
It appears that Rice already has this skill. While the Bears’ spot-drop zone defense left a lot to be desired, it’s still good to see Rice quickly identify these zone coverages and find the proper spots in which to sit.
If quarterback Patrick Mahomes is already able to trust Rice to hit these underneath routes against zone coverage, that gives him another possession zone receiver besides tight end Travis Kelce. This is exactly the role that JuJu Smith-Schuster was filling when he led the Chiefs’ wide receivers in 2022. It looks like Rice is next in line.
Winning on double-moves
The Chiefs haven’t had Rice run a lot of double-moves and shake routes from the slot — but against the Lions, he showed us that he has those in his bag.
Only clip I have of Rashee running more of a juke route, but this is great on Hoss Juke by Rashee. Shakes the LB, great stop/start, push from the outside foot pic.twitter.com/2WtweukhhQ— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 26, 2023
On this rep, Kansas City is running “Hoss Juke,” where the two outside receivers fake a screen, the two slot receivers run fades and the No. 3 wideout runs a shake route in the middle of the field. For years, the New England Patriots ran this play with Julian Edelman, because they knew he could beat linebackers in underneath coverage.
While Rice isn’t the most agile route-runner, he does possess more fluidity than he’s generally credited to have. He does a great job here — stopping outside and feigning with his outside foot before exploding out of his outside foot to cross the linebacker’s face.
Rice might not have the agility Edelman did, but he can still run some of those routes — an impressive skill for a player of his size.
The bottom line
With a wide receiver group packed with young players, Kansas City was always going to face a struggle in finding the best roles for them. You could see this on the field during the first two games — but against the Bears, we could see that the puzzle is beginning to be solved.
For my money, Skyy Moore is the best receiver to play on the outside. His releases against press coverage are his best trait — and he runs his outside routes better than his slot routes. Marquez Valdes-Scantling mostly runs vertical routes from the outside. On Sunday, those two led the team’s wideouts in snaps as they filled those outside roles — and Rice now appears to be the leading candidate to become the top slot receiver.
Rice has always been a good against the zone. In college, he was quick to identify coverages and leverages — and adjust his routes to them. It appears that he’s carried this skill to the next level.
While it’s not common for a rookie wide receiver to immediately find a role in an Andy Reid offense, Rice seems to be the exception to the rule. If he can control his drops, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be the primary wideout who is filling an important role in Kansas City’s offense.