During the first days of training camp, superagent Drew Rosenhaus made an appearance in Mankato for a "show me the money" conference with one of his handful of Vikings clients. Among them was third-year wide receiver Sidney Rice.
While far from the highest-profile client on the Rosenhaus roster, when asked about his maturation as a pro, the seldom-shy Rosenhaus was true to form.
"You watch, this is going to be a breakout year for Sidney," Rosenhaus said. "He's been building to this year and he's ready to step up his game and get noticed."
At the time, that seemed simply like the huffing-and-puffing of an agent well-versed in hyperbole and spin-doctoring. It may well have been. But less than four months later, Rosenhaus looks like an NFL Nostradamus.
Through nine games, Rice has emerged as one of the brightest young talents in the league. He is fourth in the league in receiving yards, despite having just 44 receptions – tied for 22nd in the league. His yardage total puts him in some rarified air – behind only Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson and in front of guys like Larry Fitzgerald, Chad Ochocinco and Roddy White. Not too shabby for a player whose role with the Vikings was more than a little in question heading into the season.
Rice struggled in both of his first two seasons to stay healthy. As a rookie, he caught 31 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns and big things were expected of him in 2008. Perhaps hedging their bet that Rice could be a bona fide No. 1 receiver, the team went out and signed free agent Bernard Berrian to a lucrative contract to be the home run hitter of the receiver corps. When Rice struggled to stay healthy last year, the internal concern clearly grew. He caught just 15 passes for 141 yards and four touchdowns and, aside from being a pigeonholed red zone receiver, didn't make much of a contribution – which didn't sit well with Rice, who had high expectations for himself coming into the season.
"It was tough, especially my second season – just not being healthy the whole season," Rice said. "Missing those games and not being able to help my teammates was really tough."
It probably didn't help Rice's psyche to see the Vikings make a strong run at free agent receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, only to have him sign with Seattle for a deal reportedly with less guaranteed money, and then turn around and use its first-round draft pick on speedy wide receiver Percy Harvin. By all appearances, it looked as though the Vikings were looking to outside help to be a force in the passing game – only to find out they had an in-house candidate that has been close to dominating the last two months.
His teammates recognized his frustration last year and said that his 2009 emergence was something many of them saw coming.
"Sidney has been able to stay healthy this year and I think that's a big factor," offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "He's highly motivated this year and he's going out and making big plays for us."
So many big plays that, when asked if defenses have changed their coverage schemes to account for Rice, quarterback Brett Favre said that in the team's win at Lambeau Field, the Packers made Rice the center of attention.
"There have been a couple games, (like) the second Packers game, they rolled one more (safety in) coverage to him," Favre said. "In fact, the second Packer game their mentality was a little less as much to stop the run. It was a little more pass-oriented. We did hit them on a couple of big runs, but they rolled coverage to Sidney a little bit."
So what's the difference? Those who follow the NFL closely know the trend about third-year wide receivers. In most cases, even with first-round draft picks, the first season in the NFL is spent adjusting the speed and physicality of the game. The second year is spent learning what defenders do to contain receivers. By the third year, when most good wide receivers show a pronounced jump in numbers, they have not only improved their game, but earned the confidence of their quarterbacks. In Rice's case, he said that his improvement has been the result of a combination of factors.
"Route running is probably what I've improved on the most," Rice said. "Conditioning plays a big part of it. You can't be out there on the field tired, just jogging around and being lackadaisical. I take pride in being in shape."
Rice was also quick to point out that the Vikings have an arsenal of skill position players to throw at defenses every week. Favre can make spectacular plays from anywhere on the field and no play is over until he says so. Adrian Peterson is viewed by many as the best running back in the league. Berrian and Harvin are both playmakers capable of taking any reception to the house. And Visanthe Shiancoe has become a legitimate scoring threat from the tight end position. While he agrees that he has improved, he is quick to share the credit because defenses can't worry solely about him, which creates more chances for one-on-one coverage down the field.
"It's everybody," Rice said. "Having Adrian in the backfield and Shiancoe at tight end, there are so many weapons in the offense. We continue to stay on the same page and, if we stay focused, we're going to be hard to stop."
As the Vikings continue their march toward the playoffs, Rice will continue to emerge from the shadow of anonymity and more into the spotlight. The best part, he says, is that he feels like he's still getting better and the best may be yet to come.
"It's just getting better a little bit at a time," Rice said. "I've got to continue doing the small things that I've been doing the past nine weeks and hopefully just continue to try to get better."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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