The NFL's pre-draft process is a marathon, not a sprint, and SMU wide receiver Rashee Rice is nearing the finish line with the NFL Scouting Combine and his pro day in the rearview mirror. Rice, who set the SMU single-season receiving yards record with 1,355 in 2022-- a figure that was also the most by any player in the regular season-- put his route tree on display Wednesday after a strong showing athletically at the combine.
"Just cleaning up my technique, I kind of wish I had been doing this before my senior year, but it's never too late," Rice told CBS Sports. "I've just been working on my technique to be honest. What [NFL teams] want to see the most out of me is running double-move routes, opening up my route tree because we were an Air Raid offense."
Twenty-eight NFL teams were in attendance at SMU's Pro Day, including four that had multiple front office personnel and/or scouts present: the Cincinnati Bengals, the Dallas Cowboys, the Houston Texans, and the New Orleans Saints. Houston general manager Nick Caserio was on hand, taking note of the Mustangs' talent. His Texans have five picks in the 2023 NFL Draft's first three rounds, including the second and 12th overall selections.
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SMU has quietly been an NFL wide receiver factory across the past 10-12 years, sending players like two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl Champion wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and productive slot receiver Cole Beasley to the league in the early 2010's. They have also put recent alums into the NFL like current Denver Broncos Pro Bowl wide receiver Courtland Sutton, current Baltimore Ravens wideout James Proche, current San Francisco 49ers pass-catcher Danny Gray, and current Tennessee Titans receiver Reggie Roberson.
When asked about following in Beasley's footsteps from SMU's Gerald J. Ford Stadium to the Cowboys, whose practice facility in Frisco, Texas, is 21 miles away and whose home field, AT&T Stadium, is 23 miles away, Rice's face lit up with a grin from ear-to-ear.
"I would love to go down the road [to the Cowboys]," said Rice, who also attended high school locally at Richland. "That would be really cool to be around the area where a bunch of football has happened for me. To be in the backyard of my college and be able to come back to my coaches would always be good for me."
Rice said his route-running became the next thing NFL teams told him they wanted to see after a combine performance that compared similarly to San Francisco 49ers first-round pick wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk's, per CBS Sports' NFL Draft analyst Chris Trapasso. It's those type of numbers that have Rice in the conversation to potentially become a first-round pick.
SMU WR Rashee Rice— Chris Trapasso (@ChrisTrapasso) March 6, 2023
HT/WT: 6'1" / 204
Arm/Hand: 32.75" / 9.5"
HT/WT: 6'0" / 205
Arm/Hand: 33.5" / 9.75"
"All the questions changed after the combine just because they saw me run a good 40-yard dash [time]," Rice said. "There were a lot of questions about my speed. Honestly, a lot of teams got me at low 4.4's, I'm not too worried about a media time. Whatever the teams got, I was out there to prove myself to them and not the TV.. ... After the speed, now they have to find something else to critique. That next question is me being able to run a consistent, open route tree. That's what I just proved to them today."
Positional drills are underway at SMU Pro Day. WR Rashee Rice, first in line. pic.twitter.com/gh6KyxS7LG— Garrett Podell (@garrettpodell) March 22, 2023
Goal-to-go drills at SMU Pro Day, featuring WR Rashee Rice. pic.twitter.com/s1YZtf2eYz— Garrett Podell (@garrettpodell) March 22, 2023
Rice's head coach at SMU, Rhett Lashlee, highlighted two critical areas where the wide receiver has grown from when he first stepped foot on campus to Wednesday's Pro Day: his ability to make contested catches and his game's overall explosion. According to Pro Football Focus, Rice's 16 contested catches in 2022 were tied for the 10th-most in the entire nation.
"I've had the benefit of knowing him since we recruited him out of high school, I remember going to his basketball games at Richland Hills in high school," Lashlee said. "It's been fun seeing the progression from him as a freshman to now as a senior. In my opinion, you're getting, probably most people would agree, there's not a better receiver in this draft that can catch the ball contested like he can. They're not 50-50 balls, they're 80-20 or better with him. Most people can only cover him by tackling him. That's a skill that you can't really teach that he's got. You saw at the Combine that he's healthy."
Rice battled a toe injury all year in 2022, which first became an issue in the Mustangs' 42-34 loss against TCU back on Sept. 24. However, he dominated in SMU's first three games of the season, totaling 28 catches for 491 receiving yards and three touchdowns. The last contest in that early, three-game hot streak was a 34-27 loss at Maryland. Why that's notable is because Rice put up 11 catches and a career-high 193 receiving yards against the Terrapins, a team with cornerback Deonte Banks. Banks is currently projected to be a first-round pick in the early to mid-20's of the 2023 NFL Draft, according to most CBS Sports mock drafts. Despite the injury, Rice still led the college football regular season in receiving yards.
"If you look at his first three games, specifically the Maryland game against a top-flight corner where he was explosive, versus after he got hurt, he was still tough and productive because he loves to ball," Lashlee said. "He loves to compete, that's what he loves to do. He had plenty of chances to shut it down in the middle of the year, and no one would've blamed him. He didn't because he loves to compete and play with his teammates."
"When you look at the combine, you can see his explosion is back," Lashlee continued. "His vertical [41 inches, tied for the best among wide receivers], his broad jump [10 feet, 8 inches], his 40 time [4.51], and watching him run routes today. There aren't many guys over 200 pounds that have the explosion and the speed [like Rashee]. The playmaking ability to catch the ball contested downfield, it's an art. God has given it to him, and he's got it."
Lashlee attributes most of Rice's noteworthy athletic traits to the hours of sweat deposited in the weight room over his four years in Dallas.
"One of his biggest jumps [from freshman to senior year] is his physique," Lashlee said. "He fell in love with the weight room. He was a scrawny freshman, but now he's built, he's yoked. He's a very physical player. The other thing is his explosion. He wasn't a 4.4, 4.5 kid coming out of high school, he wasn't jumping 41 [inches]. He bought into that, a lot of that comes from being in the weight room."
While Rice said he personally "doesn't really focus on the mock drafts" in order to "focus on controlling what I control," those numbers have secured an early-round NFL future for the latest standout Mustangs pass-catcher. His head coach revealed NFL teams were so excited to get a closer look at Rice that the wide receiver went out to dinner with one of the team's wide receivers coaches Tuesday night, prior to the Pro Day.
"There were some teams like that, but I've been building relationships today with certain wide receiver coaches, so it's all up in the air for me," Rice said when asked what teams have shown the most interest in him. "I don't really know right now [who has the most interest]."
As for what teams can expect from him on an NFL football field, Rice was crystal clear.
"I think I can do anything any receiver can do on the outside or inside. I'm a playmaker."