At the start of the Vikings' first organized team activities this spring, second-round pick Sidney Rice was working at the third receiver in the team's offense. It seemed like a quick rise to a large, contributing role considering how often three wide receivers are used in the modern-day NFL offense.
Of course, quick production was exactly what Rice gave his South Carolina Gamecocks in only two years on the football field. After a medical redshirt season in 2004, he caught 70 passes for 1,143 yards in 2005 (breaking Sterling Sharpe's single-season record at USC), and last year he had 72 receptions for 1,090.
But, while the Vikings appear to be ready to get some production out of Rice in his rookie season, his progress in his initial professional offseason has been measured week by week.
In late May, Rice said he felt no pressure to perform.
"No, sir. I don't feel any pressure at all. I'm coming in here trying to earn a spot on the team and also a spot on the field, so I'm going to give 100 percent always," Rice said, adding that nerves weren't a factor either. "None at all. Just coming out here and trying to be relaxed. Just trying to do everything the coaches tell me to do."
On that same May day, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell characterized Rice as a young player that should continue to improve.
"I like what I see. He really has great ball skills," Bevell said. "He's still a young player; he has a lot to learn. He still needs to learn to use better technique getting in and out of his cuts. He's a tall, lanky guy, and he still has to get all of his leverage going in the same direction, but you can see just from the two weeks that they've been here he's made those improvements, and he'll continue to get better."
While receivers coach George Stewart spent the offseason teaching his pupils the finer points of the position, like footwork and route-running, Rice still said the hardest adjustment for him was in simply learning his plays.
"Everything else is pretty much easy. Stay in the playbook, run your plays and know what you're supposed to do," said Rice, who, according to fellow rookie receiver Chandler Williams, called Stewart once at 2:30 a.m. with a question about the playbook.
A couple weeks after Bevell's initial assessment of Rice in the Vikings' system, the offensive coordinator could see improvement.
"I think he's doing a nice job. He's really improved on the route-running technique," Bevell said. "That's really one of the focuses that we've been talking about with him. We kind of liken him to a young Great Dane…he's really starting to tighten it up, getting in and out of cuts well. And I think you guys can see the ball skills. He makes great catches. If you throw it in his radius, he's going to be able to come up with the ball."
Most of the time, anyway. Early on during spring practices, he had to get accustomed to quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's arm strength.
"He's got a tremendous arm," Rice of Jackson. "On the last play (of a spring practice), he threw me a ball in the pocket, it hit my hand and went right through. I wasn't expecting it to be that hard, but it was on me. He's got a tremendous arm."
Rice came from a passing game at South Carolina that some consider as sophisticated offense for the NCAA ranks. In 24 games with the Gamecocks, he produced 23 touchdowns. He was also the first player in school history to accumulate over 1,000 yards in two seasons.
Fortunately for the Vikings, he seems to like their West Coast offense under Bevell and head coach Brad Childress.
"I think it's a really good system. The routes they've got us running, they're really good routes – there is something for every defense. It's just whether or not we make the plays or not," Rice said.
If his college career is any indication, Rice will be making plays for the Vikings early in his career.
Rice Making Early Progress in Offense
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