The 2023 version of Chiefs is on the field together this week for the first time, alongside the fresh paint of a new Super Bowl logo that belongs to their predecessors. While the carryover from that championship is most striking among this year’s group — head coach, quarterback and his favorite target — you can’t help but notice that the actual change resides in the exact place it did a year ago.
The guys catching passes from Patrick Mahomes.
For what it’s worth, Mahomes is publicly complimentary of the group of wide receivers, specifying the depth is so prominent that you aren’t quite sure who is even guaranteed a spot on the team.
That’s one way to look at it.
The other? A lot of questions.
That shouldn’t come across as pessimistic, because as I’ve pointed out in the past, the Chiefs don’t have nearly as much to replace as the outside perception would have you believe. JuJu Smith-Schuster had only 440 yards and one touchdown in his final 11 games in Kansas City, and the Chiefs were 10-1 without Mecole Hardman a year ago. They can make it work without those two because, well, they already have.
But with whom?
Could it be a rookie?
The Chiefs will require someone to replace the production they did lose — someone to occupy those snaps — and it’s about time that someone comes from draft capital. The Chiefs have spent enough of it on receivers over the past five classes — more first- and second-day picks on that position than any other on the field.
For all of the success stories this front office has collected in the draft over the past handful of seasons, it probably shouldn’t lead that book with the receivers. Skyy Moore, a second-round pick last spring, had 250 yards as a rookie. A year earlier, fifth-rounder Cornell Powell became general manager Brett Veach’s first draft pick not to make the 53-man roster out of training camp. Two years prior, the Chiefs moved up to select Mecole Hardman in the second round, and he averaged 524 yards per season over four years.
Hardman has been the most productive of the bunch, and his production netted a one-year, $4.5 million contract. Yawn.
We’re still waiting for the breakthrough. It’s not for a lack of attempts. And wouldn’t you know it, here we are in the heat of summer, offered yet another opportunity.
But one of a notably different kind.
Rashee Rice, a second-round pick last month out of SMU, is not like the last couple of second-round picks in Moore and Hardman.
He is not a luxury pick. The Chiefs made this selection based on their perceptions of need, even if need is a relative term here.
The best version of their offense in 2023 would include Rice subtracting the get-accustomed-to-the-offense growing pains that have delayed his predecessors. And on Wednesday, Mahomes offered a clue for why that could happen.
“I like the feel that he has when he’s running the routes,” Mahomes said. “A lot of times you get a lot of young dudes who are extremely athletic, and they just run as fast as they can. And they’re just running around (but) don’t know exactly where to be.
“I could feel where (Rice) would sit there and he would listen to guys like Trav (Kelce). He would listen to Kadarius (Toney). And those guys would talk and he would get a feel for how he was running the route.”
If we’re being honest, the lack of immediate instinctual feel robbed Moore of immediate impact. It wasn’t his ability. (It’s also why Moore, after a year in Kansas City, is a candidate to make a big leap.)
Rice arrives in a different situation. Here’s not here as a chess piece on a blank board — in which the Chiefs just grabbed the most talented guy — but rather one that covers up a few holes.
“He’ll go up and get the football, and once he catches it, he’s violent,” assistant general manager Mike Borgonzi said. “He’s like a running back after the catch. That’s a big part of our offense here.”
Those are the descriptions of one particular spot within the offense.
The “X” receiver.
The JuJu role, if you’d like to put a player label on it. It was Byron Pringle before him, and Sammy Watkins before him.
The Chiefs have more than once mentioned Rice’s ability after the catch. He did lead all FCS receivers with 593 yards after the catch in 2022. But it’s how he accumulated the yardage — not strictly with speed but instead with an ability to break tackles.
While Andy Reid’s offense designs plays to put receivers in space, they quite apparently are anticipating Rice could catch more footballs in traffic than his teammates. That fits the description of the X receiver, a spot in which congestion can be more typical. The Chiefs don’t have one currently on the roster following Smith-Schuster’s departure, which is why even if they don’t need to replace a lot of production there, they do need someone to replace that type of production. There’s a difference.
Smith-Schuster occupied a role that demanded he catch the ball in traffic, and he led the team in contested catches. Rice might do more of his work downfield than Smith-Schuster did, but Pro Football Focus credited him with 16 contested catches last season at SMU. It helps that he has a 41-inch vertical, which tied for the best mark among receivers at this year’s NFL Combine. Scouts praised his body control and ability to high-point the ball, and when you out-jump a defensive back, that’s a pretty good trait to have.
This is laying out a bit of an ideal scenario, as aforementioned, but Rice has the skill set to be the genre of receiver the Chiefs don’t have, even if others on the roster might possess more overall talent. He hasn’t played a down in the NFL after all, and he was visibly fatigued in rookie minicamp, enough that Reid even referenced it.
There is quite a long way before we can rephrase potential fit as ideal fit.
But it’s an ideal time for it.