Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

The Kansas City Chiefs thought they had their guy when they drafted Mecole Hardman. And then when they drafted Skyy Moore. And then when they traded for Kadarius Toney.

The Chiefs offense has never been in any serious trouble since they traded receiver Tyreek Hill before the 2022 season. But they have been looking for the next guy ever since. Obviously, they were never going to find Hill’s one-for-one replacement. But Kansas City hasn’t even come close to replacing him, even though those three receivers profile with plenty of similarities to Hill’s game: smaller, agile, elusive and fast, fast, fast.

That’s what they seem to have wanted. But you know what they got?

*cue the music*

Just what they needed.

Rookie receiver Rashee Rice might be a taller and slower wideout, but he is starting to do what Hardman and Moore and Toney could not. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Rice, a second-round pick out of SMU, is acting like the Chiefs’ WR1. In the postseason, he leads the team in receiving yards (177) and is tied with Travis Kelce for receptions (12) and targets (16). Rice has one postseason touchdown to Kelce’s two.

During the regular season, Rice led Chiefs receivers in targets (102), catches (79), yards (938) and touchdowns (seven). 

“He’s got a great relationship with Pat, and they talk through things,” coach Andy Reid said about Rice’s relationship with Patrick Mahomes. “He’s all ears. He’s willing to work at it. He’s willing to listen. A lot of guys just turn off the veterans, but he wants to absorb all of that and take it all in.”

It’s rare for a rookie to produce like Rice is.

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On one hand, there’s a production vacuum in the Chiefs’ passing offense. With Mahomes at quarterback, someone — anyone — was going to get targets in 2023, a year when Kansas City’s receiving corps has never looked thinner. Mahomes’ production betrayed as much. He finished the year with 4,182 passing yards and 27 passing touchdowns, his lowest totals since 2019, when he played just 14 games. He had his lowest yards and touchdowns per game, his lowest yards per attempt and his highest interception total (14). 

He really just needed someone competent to stand downfield and catch passes. But Rice has been more than that.

“He’s still got a lot he can improve on, which is crazy to say. He’s had such a great season,” Mahomes said in December. “The little things that NFL receivers do — he’s got the explosiveness; he knows how to run routes.”

There are elements of Kelce in Rice’s game. That was true even before Rice joined the Chiefs. He has a knack for finding gaps in the zone and for seeing defenses settle into their play-call. That quick recognition is how he is so often open for Mahomes. It’s something he learned in college. And it’s something he has learned to do even better at the NFL level by working with Kelce. 

It’s a boon for Kansas City because of how often teams want to play zone against Mahomes, who will exploit man coverage to generate a big play. In response, the Chiefs have heavily used their two zone-beaters to chip away at defenses.

“I would say just his attention to detail, his ability to feel out defenses — be confident in what he’s seeing in the defense to be able to find voids,” Kelce said. “I think he’s been pretty spot-on with that and open to learning more about that kind of stuff. When you’re open to learning about stuff in this building you’re going to figure it out.”

It’s rare for a rookie to take on that role, particularly in Reid’s offense. The coach was asked about the rookies he saw do what Rice is doing. The list was short: DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Reggie Brown.

“I haven’t had a lot of rookies [do that],” Reid said. “If you could narrow it down to four guys, that’s a tough thing to do, I’d say.”

Rice never seemed to hit a rookie wall. His best performance of the season came in the wild-card round (8 catches, 130 yards, 1 TD) during a blowout win over the Dolphins. He eclipsed 100 yards for the first time in his career in his 11th NFL game. He did it again in Week 18. And he did it again in the postseason. He also has not recorded a single drop in the postseason, hauling in 12 of his 16 targets.

During his huge game against the Dolphins, we saw an example of just how effective Rice and Kelce are when working off each other. On the receiver’s touchdown, the Chiefs ran a concept called “Whale and Shark,” according to former Chiefs QB Chase Daniel. Kelce, lined up in a trips formation, ran a stop route in the middle of the field that drew all the defensive attention. That left Rice open flowing in the opposite direction on a drag route. He walked into the end zone for six points.

“I’m proud of him,” Kelce said of Rice’s postseason debut. “I think he’s come a long way, and I think he’s still ascending as a player in this offense. It’s just been fun to see him rise to the occasion and really just catapult us in a lot of ways, both in the pass game and run game.

“It’s been awesome to see him accept the challenges every single week. Week 10 through 15 as a rookie you can kind of get lost a little bit, and he’s been real focused throughout that and really hasn’t hit a rookie wall as much as I did for sure.”

Rice is what so many teams need: a young wideout who knows how to get open, catch the ball and generate yards after the catch. It sounds simple, but you can ask teams around the league how hard it is to draft that kind of player. The Chiefs know the challenges first-hand.

Rice will never be Hill. Their games simply aren’t comparable. But the rookie has already made himself essential in Kansas City’s offense. He has earned the trust of Reid and Mahomes. And in that offense, he has the chance to be one of the NFL’s most prolific receivers in 2024.

But before that, he needs to help the Chiefs win a Super Bowl. And even before that, Rice needs to help the Chiefs beat the Baltimore Ravens.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.

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