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The Risk and Reward of Sidney Rice

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Hah. Asante Samuel.
Hah. Asante Samuel.

The Seahawks free agency period has been as exciting as it has been widely panned. The simplistic analysis of pundits who don't really bother to look beyond this year or get to know a team is "but they don't have a quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson? What a joke!" And, well, that's true. The Seahawks did not stretch their resources in a desperate grab at contention. Long-term over short-term.

I made no secret of my desire for Johnathan Joseph to come to Seattle, but as various people (especially the excellent Scott Enyeart) predicted, Pete Carroll has no interest in bringing in top-flight CBs, instead depending on his ability to scout gems and scheme to create mismatches. I'm not going to question him there, but I will say our defense is kind of an arid wasteland of unproven talents and veterans with question marks. Even more so than the QB position, that looks like a huge factor keeping us out of contention.

Yet, before free agency kicked off, I stated that in the end it didn't matter to me so much what holes we opted to fill, but rather that the talent we targeted aggressively would be young, high-tier talent with their best days before them. Sidney Rice, Zach Miller and Brandon Mebane certainly fit the bill, and even our older addition Robert Gallery will have so much value to the Seahawks and the growth of our young offensive line that the move just makes perfect sense.

Yet I want to put some footnotes on the hype. I've rewatched a little Vikings play but not enough to do scouting writeups on the Jackson/Rice combo, which I'll get to later. But even without a full scouting picture, it's pretty obvious that while quarterback is our offense's biggest question mark, it's not the only position worth adding footnotes to. Sidney Rice is an exciting signing, but it is as risky as it is potentially rewarding. If you want to see some footnotes on Sidney, here's an article from the Daily Norseman, with the lack of production and injury problems raised as issues (written before Rice landed with us).

The injury issue

Sidney Rice passed his physical. Problem solved, right? Not really. Sidney Rice's injury was as unique as it is worrisome. You've no doubt heard whispers about his hip being arthritic or him having some other degenerative hip condition. The only source I've seen for these oft-cited rumors is the Star-Tribune columnist Sid Hartman reporting close friends of Rice told him the surgery didn't fully resolve the problem and Rice is dealing with arthritis. Take it with a grain of salt.

So, what do we actually know? Well, Rice suffered cartilage damage to his hip joints in the NFC Championship. He didn't get surgery until the next season was about to start, and I kind of understand his misgivings about getting surgery done. The "pick" procedure he had done is similar to the microfracture surgery popular for busted knees, with the doctor poking holes in the hip bone to make them generate cells to repair the lost/damaged cartilage. As Pelissero mentions in the article, microfracture surgery on the hip has only become widely used in the past five to ten years, and its results are unpredictable. Like knee microfracture, it has a pretty long recovery period, and Rice may have come back a bit too soon, shoved off PUP as he was, last year. This is worth highlighting because deviating from the set rehabilitation procedure for microfracture is a really, really bad idea. Read the rehabilitation guidelines here or theorizing on success rate of recovery here if you're curious.

I'm no doctor, but yes, the hip worries me. On top of the hip, Rice has only ever played one full NFL season, as he missed (according to two games in 2007 to an ankle injury and one more to a hamstring. In 2008 he strained his PCL which made him miss three mid-season games and he was utilized as little more than a redzone threat afterwards, as he was hobbled the rest of the year. The pro is they're all unique injuries so he doesn't seem have a recurring problem. The con is, well, that's a lot of injuries.

The production issue

Outside of 2009 (and we'll get to that later), Rice started all of 12 games over three seasons, averaging less than 300 yards a year. Man that's unimpressive, and I see people bang that drum a lot. That's just kind of weird. Admittedly, there are WRs that hit the ground running in the NFL and have few problems contributing immediately, but I thought the "2-year buffer" rule still applied for the average WR.

It's been a truism of the position for a long time that many if not most take two years to get used to the NFL. Sidney Rice fits the mold perfectly, as do many other WRs; Roddy White, Steve Smith (either one), even a guy like Reggie Wayne didn't hit the ground running, Golden Tate will likely one day be an example of it. Rice's numbers are still on the low side for that, but injury accounts for most of that, as it does for 2010 and his possibly premature return. Overall, his early lack of production doesn't tell us much either way.

The Favre factor

That Rice didn't produce in his rookie years or coming back from hip surgery isn't too surprising. But Rice's top season does happen to coincide with a pretty good veteran QB playing at an all-pro level. We don't have a good veteran quarterback, let alone one that's set to play at an all-pro level.

WR play impacts QB numbers, yes, but not nearly as much as QB play impacts WR numbers. Don't believe me? Go and ask Carolina's Steve Smith about it. Or look at Larry Fitzgerald's catch rate, which went from 62-63% under Warner to 52% under that 2010 Cardinals QB rotation. Is ours much better than theirs was? Well we have hindsight on theirs, and only hope for ours, so you gotta say yes, yet Derek Anderson was more proven as a QB than any of our guys, and wasn't rushed into a new team (though, fortunately for Tarvaris, not a new system). And while it's generally true QB impacts WR more than vice versa, Rice is the kind of receiver that makes his QB better, and with frequent amazing catches of imperfectly thrown balls, he did contribute to Favre's great season.

Still, even if Rice remains injury-free, should we immediately expect another 2009 out of him? Don't get your hopes up. With as many targets as we have our limited QBs don't have to lock in purely on him (which was Larry Fitzgerald's saving grace to pull out a semi-decent year in 2010), and the drop in quality of play will definitely limit his production. Tarvaris Jackson averages 26 attempts per game as a starter over his career. A low amount of attempts is typical for a QB asked to manage a run-first offense, which is exactly what we look to be doing. But with less attempts to go around and quite a few valid targets on the Seahawks team, it's hard to envision any of those targets being outstandingly productive.

Do you get yet why I'm not as super-excited about this signing as some. No? Well, that makes sense, because I'm a bit biased against the receiver position relative to other positions (especially cornerback, Johnathan Joseph dammit). Bit of a hump I should nudge myself over.

The always excellent Greg Cosell did a must-read breakdown of the wide receiver position, both talking about its increased value and the specific skillsets of some high-level WRs and some promising young WRs. He also offers a grading system at the end, with the caveat that this isn't adapted for situation or age and should absolutely not be read as his top rankings (he offers his top five WRs in Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, Larry Fitzgerald and Santonio Holmes, which differs from the top of the scoring list).

Like him, I felt Santonio Holmes is a better WR than Sidney Rice right now, but he's also older (but still young) and a potential risk for a one-year drugs suspension, which is why he didn't get paid as much as his talent warrants. Sidney Rice appears in the list slightly above Michael Crabtree. But ignore the overall rankings, and pay attention to how his scores highlight the Larry Fitzgerald comparison we've been making, and why Sidney isn't quite there yet, the most obvious discrepancies being physicality, routes, hands and release off the line. Physicality, routes and release off the line I'm not surprised about, the hands score is a bit more mystifying, maybe someone will have a comment on it? I'll certainly keep my eyes open when re-watching footage.

But the point is this: Sidney Rice's upside is Larry Fitzgerald. That should not be confused with him being guaranteed or even likely to become Larry Fitzgerald. He has a big injury demon to shake off, and even if he does that has a lot to prove. He's only 24, and the risk-reward equation here is pretty balanced (though some would argue we overpaid). We're taking quite a risk but if it works out, then his best days are ahead of him and will be played in a Seahawks uniform.