Chiefs rookie Rice learning to be ‘Patrick-friendly’

Chiefs wide receiver Rashee Rice runs with the ball past Raiders cornerback Amik Robertson during the second half of Sunday’s game in Las Vegas. (Associated Press
Chiefs wide receiver Rashee Rice runs with the ball past Raiders cornerback Amik Robertson during the second half of Sunday’s game in Las Vegas. (Associated Press

KANSAS CITY -- Just about every Chiefs fan was clamoring at the NFL’s trade deadline for general manager Brett Veach to swing a deal for some help at wide receiver, where Kansas City had been struggling to find someone to step up in the passing game.

The Chiefs did make a deal with the New York Jets for Mecole Hardman, but he has been ineffective or injured ever since returning to his old team, leaving Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the offense in no better position than they were.

Except for this: The someone the Chiefs needed to step up may already have been on the team.

Second-round pick Rashee Rice, who got off to a slow start in the complex system run by Chiefs coach Andy Reid, has steadily improved during the middle portion of the season. And he had his best game yet last Sunday in Las Vegas, when Rice had a game-high 10 targets, eight receptions and 107 yards, including a short throw that became a 39-yard touchdown catch.

It was the sixth time in seven games Rice had caught at least four passes. He has TD grabs in two of the past three.

“He’s been getting better every week,” Reid acknowledged, “and he’s working to be more ‘Patrick-friendly.’ There’s a lot that goes into that when you say something like that, and a lot of it is just playing. Being willing to fit your game into the offense’s game, and how Patrick sees things. He’s done a nice job of being open that way.”

What does “Patrick-friendly” mean?

Well, few quarterbacks in the NFL go off-script as successfully as the reigning league MVP, and many of his best throws and biggest highlights have been on sandlot-style plays. Opposing coaches often tell their defense it is better to keep Mahomes in the pocket than let him run around given his propensity for conjuring up some off-schedule magic.

While that makes Mahomes a nightmare to defend, it also can make it hard on his wide receivers to get in sync: When do you cut off a route? When do you run to open space? When do you turn up-field or break outside or fade to the corner?

“When we’re doing special teams and (Rice) is not in there,” Reid said, “he goes over and works with Pat. They talk through things. Then they run routes. ‘This is the look where I’m seeing you on this route against this coverage.’ They spend time with each other there, and then off the field likewise, for meetings they keep an open communication there.”

The Chiefs desperately needed someone in their otherwise struggling wide receiver group to step up. Some of them have been battling injuries, others have consistently failed to get open and drops have been a problem across the board.

Rice had an early problem with drops, too, but he has been better at securing the catch during the past month.

And the result has been a noticeable uptick in production. Rice had a three-game stretch against the Broncos and Chargers were he had at least four grabs for 56 yards in each game, and he had four catches for 42 yards against the Eagles in their Super Bowl rematch.

The result heading into Week 13 on Sunday night in Green Bay has been 44 catches for 527 yards and five TDs; the Chiefs’ next-most productive wide receiver, Justin Watson, has just 20 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns.

“It’s a complex offense,” Mahomes admitted. “It’s hard for young guys to do it. We kind of limit their roles and as the season goes on, we expand them more and more. I think he’s done a great job with it. There are little things here and there that we continue to work on, but for the most part, he learns from his mistakes.”

That has given Mahomes the confidence to throw to Rice in increasingly stressful situations.

It also has given Reid the confidence to use him in a variety of ways.

“We’ve only scratched the surface, honestly,” Mahomes said. “You see us hitting him kind of around the line of scrimmage, but I think you saw the one down the sideline (against the Raiders). He can do some of the vertical-threat stuff, and he has speed, and he has burst. You see him when he has the football in his hands. So, let’s start working him in.”

Notes: RB Jerick McKinnon (groin) missed practice Wednesday. Everyone else worked, including LB Nick Bolton, who has been out since Week 7 with a wrist injury. … Mahomes was voted AFC offensive player of the week, and it still means something to him despite having won it plenty of times already. “It’s an award for playing great football, which is hard to do in this league,” he said. “It speaks to the team, mostly. Most times you win the game, the guys around you make the plays to get you those awards.”