Healthy Rice could mean trouble for Vikings

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings understand the tease with Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice very well from his first four years in the league. In the past two years, Seattle has learned quickly that Rice can be one of the NFL’s best wide receivers, when healthy.

That’s been the rub for Rice.

The talented, 6-foot-4 receiver has played in 16 games only once in his first five seasons, the first four with Minnesota after he was a second-round draft choice by the team in 2007. Too often he’s dealt with injuries, nagging or otherwise, and that trend continued after signing a five-year, $41 million contract with Seattle prior to last season. After Rice underwent surgery on both shoulders in the offseason, the big-play threat feels better than he has in two years.

“Fortunately now we’re seeing him at full-tilt and it’s great,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said on a conference call with Minnesota media Wednesday. “He’s got a good contract here with us. We’ve got him for a long time. We’re really trying to take care of him. We were very careful with him in this offseason, and it worked out just right. He’s kind of peaked at the right time. Now as we grow, I would hope that his role and his production will expand as we grow together.”

With Rice healthy, the Vikings (5-3) will see just what they are missing this weekend when the two teams meet in Seattle. Rice leads the Seahawks (4-4) with 28 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns and has developed a recent rapport with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, racking up 290 of his 367 yards in the past four weeks.

Last week, he had a season-high six catches for 55 yards and a touchdown in a 28-24 loss at Detroit.

“He’s looking like the Sidney we remember,” Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. “He’s making a lot of plays down the field, contested plays. He’s staying healthy and his production is up, that’s the key for him, staying healthy, and he’s doing that.”

Health was always the issue for Rice. Health has kept him from becoming the type of weapon he was in 2009 for the Vikings, when he had 83 catches for 1,312 yards and 12 touchdowns while making the Pro Bowl. It was his one fully healthy season in the NFL. He ended his four years with the Vikings with 146 catches, 2,129 yards (a 14.6-yard average) and 18 touchdowns.

Knowing the potential, but also the risk, Minnesota watched as Rice left for Seattle, getting $18.5 million guaranteed from the Seahawks. Rice, 26, said the Vikings tried to retain his services, but with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell also leaving for Seattle after Frazier brought in Bill Musgrave to run the unit in Minnesota, Rice actually felt more comfortable with the stability provided by the Seahawks.

“They made a strong effort to keep me there,” Rice said Wednesday. “I talked to coach Frazier a few times throughout the process and (wide receivers coach George) Stewart as well. We just couldn’t come to the terms and I decided to choose Seattle. I had offensive coordinator I had been with for the previous four years, knew the playbook and that was one of the big reasons.”

Rice was coming off a final season in Minnesota in which he played just six games following hip surgery and had just 17 catches and 280 yards.

It didn’t go much better his first season with the Seahawks, when he missed the first two games with shoulder problems and then was lost for the season after suffering two concussions.

“It was pretty tough,” Rice said. “Last year was something I couldn’t control. It was a team decision along with the NFL. It wasn’t the shoulder problems that I had. I was playing through that. Unfortunately, I got my second concussion, probably in the Baltimore Ravens game late in the year, and they thought it would be best to put me on IR for the rest of the year.”

He finished with 32 catches for 484 yards and two touchdowns in nine games last season.

Now, Rice says he feels as good physically as he has since 2009, when he teamed with then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre to be one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. He says he still talks to several of his former Minnesota teammates often and spoke with Jamarca Sanford and Jasper Brinkley this week.

Sanford will be partially responsible for covering Rice on Sunday and knows what his friend and teammate is capable of when 100 percent.

“When he healthy, he’s one of the best at his position in the league,” Sanford said. “He healthy now and he’s back making plays like what he do.”

Rice is looking forward to Sunday’s game and matching up with former teammates.

“I had a wonderful time when I was there,” Rice said. “A lot of great teammates, a lot of the guys that I still talk to, the coaches as well, had a great four years. I enjoyed every minute of it. It’s going to be fun matching up with those guys and seeing those guys on the same field this weekend.”

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