Rice can succeed with Broncos

Conventional thought seems to be that Jerry Rice should retire rather than play his 21st NFL season at the age of 43.

Of course, wasn't it conventional thought that Rice didn't have the speed to merit anything higher than the 16th selection in the 1985 draft? Wasn't it conventional thought that Rice didn't play against good enough competition at Mississippi Valley State to be a polished NFL receiver?

So much for conventional thought. Rice is the greatest receiver in NFL history. He's going to a coach, Mike Shanahan of the Broncos, who knew how to use him in San Francisco a decade ago. He'll know how to use him now.

Rice accepted a one-year deal to challenge for a roster spot with the Broncos.

Two weeks ago, Rice's agent, Jim Steiner, sent a letter to 32 teams that The Greatest Of All Time was interested in having one last fling at the NFL. The 49ers weren't interested in him because they were too young at receiver. Rice turned down a one-year, minimum salary offer from the Bucs. But Rice said yes to Shanahan even though his salary will be less than $800,000 this season.

Rice, who will be 43 in October, may be no more than a non-impact No. 2 or No. 3 receiver on a good team, but he's the perfect insurance policy in case of an injury to 35-year-old Rod Smith. Rice still has football left in him. Given 16 games to start, he still could catch 50 to 60 passes for 650 to 800 yards.

Those numbers can keep some receivers in the league for a lot of years. Surprisingly, Rice played more than an outsider would think last season. He took part in 641 offensive snaps, roughly 60 percent of the plays a team normally runs. He played in 11 games for the Seahawks, starting nine and catching 25 passes for 362 yards (14.5 per catch) and three touchdowns. He was the big receiver the Seahawks needed to fill in while Koren Robinson struggled with dropped passes, missed meetings and off-field problems.

But there has been a noticeable drop in his skill level. Ten years ago, he averaged more than 5 yards after the catch. In the past three years, according to Stats Inc., his YAC has dropped from 4.2 in 2002 to 3.5 in 2003 to 3.2 in 2004.

The Broncos appealed to him for several reasons. For one, Denver is a playoff caliber team. Secondly, the Broncos run the West Coast offense. Lastly, Shanahan is an offensive mind whom Rice has always respected.

Rice may not start that many games this year, but you can bet he'll end up being more than a fourth receiver for the Broncos.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.