2022 NFL Draft Profile: Utah State LB Justin Rice
The well-traveled Aggies linebacker has been productive everywhere he’s been, but how does he measure up in this year’s draft class?
Is he being underrated as a playmaker?
Some players just seem to have a nose for the football and, in the last handful of years, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Mountain West who was better in that regard than Utah State linebacker Justin Rice.
That’s because, in three different stops, he simply never stopped making plays. He was recruited out of high school by Fresno State and, after playing sparingly for two seasons, broke onto the scene in 2019 as a first-team all-Mountain West defender. The conference media would tab Rice as its preseason pick for defensive player of the year in 2020, though the chance to follow through on that never materialized once COVID-19 derailed plays to play the full season and, in the uncertainty that followed, Rice chose to transfer to Arkansas State.
All he did in the Sun Belt was lead all FBS defenders in tackles for loss during the 2020 season, earning another first-team all-conference nod in the process, before following head coach Blake Anderson to Utah State ahead of the 2021 season, a key transfer who helped to spearhead the Aggies rise to the top of the Mountain West last season. Will all of that be enough, however, to help him hear his name called at the NFL Draft?
Measurables (taken from Dane Brugler and DraftScout.com)
Height – 6′ and 1 3/4″
Weight – 226 pounds
40-yard time – 4.65 seconds
10-yard split time – 1.68 seconds
Arm length – 30 5/8″
Hand size – 8 5/8″
Wingspan – 74 3/4″
Vertical jump – 32″
Broad jump – 9′ and 5″ (or 113″)
Shuttle time – 4.44 seconds
3-cone drill time – 7.18 seconds
Bench press – 17 reps
One thing that’s evident in Rice’s game is that he has the instincts to know exactly where he needs to be in most situations and the kind of abandon that enables him to finish plays effectively.
Generally speaking, that has made him an asset in run defense over the years evidenced by hosting 41 career tackles for loss (32 of which came between 2020 and 2021). However, he knows how to make plays in space, too, and has a knack for creating big play opportunities.
Justin Rice is GOOD
Utah State continues to make life tough for Oregon State pic.twitter.com/X1btQMdLzx
— The Transfer Portal CFB (@TPortalCFB) December 19, 2021
NO ✈️ ZONE!
— USU Football (@USUFootball) September 19, 2021
The biggest concern about Rice is that, in today’s NFL, he simply may not have the size or length required of modern linebackers. For as effective as he could be defending the run, the pro game is all about the pass and analysts seems to think that’s where his limitations could catch up with him.
The worries, according to NFL Draft Buzz and Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline, range from potential struggles in shedding blocks at the line of scrimmage to a lack of a fifth gear factoring into pass coverage. In other words, the diagnosis element of Rice’s game can only take him so far.
Rice isn’t the most physically dynamic linebacker in this year’s draft class, but there’s three years of proof to suggest that a team could definitely make use of his smarts and turn him into a contributor. If he’s drafted, it may not be until the seventh round, but it’s more likely he’ll take the same path as other recent Mountain West defenders like Andrew Wingard and sign somewhere as an undrafted free agent.