Could Patriots' Derek Rivers Prove Biggest Steal of 2017 NFL Draft?

Doug FarrarNFL Lead ScoutMay 8, 2017

Youngstown defensive end Derek Rivers runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

If you're a Patriots fan, the 2017 NFL draft might have been a bit boring at first. 

The Pats had traded their first-round pick to the Saints for receiver Brandin Cooks, and they shipped their second-round pick to the Panthers for defensive lineman Kony Ealy. Thus, New England was slotted to make its first pick with the 72nd overall selection—the longest such wait in franchise history, and the only time the team had gone without first- and second-round picks. 

As a result, one might have expected head coach Bill Belichick to look for depth players throughout the draft, as players with obvious star potential are rarities when you get into the third round. But with a combination of great planning and good fortune, Belichick may have landed his next star pass-rusher with the 83rd overall pick (having traded down from 72) in the form of Youngstown State defensive end Derek Rivers.

After high school, Rivers spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy in 2012 to get his grades straight—a common path for future NCAA stars who need to go that route—and became Youngstown State's all-time sack leader with 41 from 2013-16, adding 56.5 tackles for loss and 47 quarterback hurries. Rivers' success in the All-Missouri Valley Football Conference was one thing, but he also lit it up at the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine. He sacked game MVP Davis Webb in the game at Mobile, and impressed at the combine with his overall test results. Rivers' 40-yard dash time of 4.61 ranked third among defensive ends, as did his 30 bench-press reps.

Rivers didn't grow into his body until he landed in college, and between that, a lack of good tape and his academic issues, he had to take the path of a late bloomer. Arriving at Youngstown State and working with head coach Bo Pelini showed Rivers what he was capable of.

"I wanted to be an every-down player," Rivers told DraftBreakdown's Justin Melo of the transition from reserve to starter in 2014. "My dad played football at Virginia Tech and he always told me that the guys who you see make it, they put in extra work. That was the one thing that I wanted to do. I started by doing extra in the weight room. I was smaller and I knew that I had to get bigger if I was going to be successful. Once I started gaining that weight and getting stronger, it gave me more confidence on the field. That's what changed for me."

When a reporter asked Belichick following the pick how Rivers' game would translate to a higher level of competition, he didn't seem concerned.

"You can see him do that in the Senior Bowl," Belichick said. "I mean, he's been in a good program. Coach Pelini has been an NFL coach, been a Division I head coach. They were in a championship game there at Youngstown. He does a great job. Visiting with Derek last week, or two weeks agowhenever it was when he was in herehe's obviously been in a good program. He's been well-coached, and sure, it's a big adjustment for him or anybody else moving to the National Football League. I think he's been in a solid program. We'll see how it goes."

So, why was Rivers available in the third round? Strength of competition was going to be an issue—he had his most prolific sack games last season against Illinois State, South Dakota and Eastern Washington—and there are things about his game that need to be ironed out. He'll need time with a good defensive line coach to develop a consistent palette of hand moves to create separation from blockers, a better sense of where the play is going as a run defender, and the development of an inside counter move to push away against blockers who have him walled off outside before he bends the edge to the pocket.

Like many collegiate defensive linemen at every level, Rivers tended to go with two basic moves most of the time: a nebulous bull-rush, which he'd occasionally follow up with a quick swipe to disengage from a blocker, and a straight speed rush to the outside with the occasional inside gap game. Beyond that, he didn't seem to have a plan. There were many times when Rivers was able to overcome his lack of technique with pure athleticism, but many pass-rushers before him have learned what he'll learn early on—that stuff doesn't fly against experienced NFL offensive linemen.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Belichick was right about that—if Rivers had played for Ohio State or Alabama, it'd still be a big adjustment.

For the tape study, we'll start with his sack of Webb in the Senior Bowl. Rivers is lined up as the right defensive end against UCLA left tackle Conor McDermott, who the Patriots selected in the sixth round. Here, Rivers starts in a Wide 9 set and rushes by McDermott before he can get his pass set together. McDermott tries to bull Rivers out of the pocket, but Rivers has too much momentum at that point. Again, this isn't going to happen against most NFL tackles, but it's a good indicator of Rivers' explosiveness outside the formation, and what he might look like in New England's defense as a stand-up outside linebacker.

Draft Breakdown/YouTube

This play right before the sack is also intriguing, as it shows Rivers' athleticism as a run-and-chase defender to the sideline. Here, he's lined up closer to the formation and playing the run, as Webb pitches the ball to San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey, a smaller speedster who the Eagles selected in the fourth round. Rivers reads whether Pumphrey is going inside or outside and then changes direction quickly for his size to help make the tackle.

Draft Breakdown/YouTube

Let's move to this quarterback pressure in the first quarter of Youngstown State's 38-21 loss to West Virginia last September. Rivers is lined up at left defensive end, where he played the majority of snaps for the Penguins. Here, he gets off the snap quickly and engages right tackle Marcell Lazard immediately, using his upper-body strength to push Lazard back before jerking him aside to get to quarterback Skyler Howard. Note also how Rivers times his escape move to the quarterback with the right guard's decision to push him out of the play. That aside, this is an excellent example of Rivers' ability to generate a bull rush when he comes off the snap quickly enough, and his nebulous—though effective—hand moves.

Draft Breakdown/YouTube

Later in the first quarter, though, you see what happens when Rivers is walled off by a blocker who gets into his pass set quickly and can cover the pocket with a good base. Here, Lazard is quick off the ball and active with his hands to keep Rivers at bay, and Rivers doesn't have any kind of counter. He can engage, but he's not evolved enough as a pass-rusher to separate and move past the blocker. This is a common problem for Rivers, as it is for many collegiate defensive linemen with limited technique.

Draft Breakdown/YouTube

Let's move to a couple of plays against North Dakota State in Youngstown State's 24-3 loss last November. This second-quarter disruption should excite Patriots fans, because it shows what kind of pass-rusher Rivers can be when he's given a plan, as he touts the physical tools to execute it. Here, he runs a quick counter to right tackle Landon Lechler's outside shoulder and then moves quickly inside, leaving Lechler with no time to recover. And since Lechler doesn't get his body around to focus on Rivers' push through to the pocket, Rivers can use his strength as an obvious advantage.

Draft Breakdown/YouTube

This is speed to power in a short space, and it's a fairly common move for him. Here, you can see him doing something similar to right tackle Jack Plankers in Youngstown State's 2015 game against the Bison. Fake the outside shoulder, move inside, take the tackle to school off his own improper leverage and get the quarterback. That's a move that he can take to the NFL.

Draft Breakdown/YouTube

Back to 2016. Check out this second-quarter sack, when Rivers turns the corner with too much speed for Lechler to catch up with him. A lot of NFL tackles will have learned the techniques necessary to deal with this kind of edge speed, but when you think about Rivers' strength of opponent, also remember that from a technique standpoint, Rivers has been dealing with a half-full palette at best. This is pure athleticism that can be molded into something special. 

Draft Breakdown/YouTube

This run play in the second quarter is a nice example of Rivers' ability to track running backs through to the sideline. It's apparent that Rivers was tracking the run from the snap on a high percentage of his plays, which would explain his hesitation to engage with blockers at times. When he's not getting walled off by pulls and traps or flying through gaps so quickly that he misses the ball-carrier entirely, he has a good sense of playing defense against any ground game.

Draft Breakdown/YouTube

In Rivers, the Patriots have a raw weapon with a lot of potential. They'll have to round out his game, but given their emphasis on fundamentals, there's little doubt Rivers' potential will come to fruition over time.

As far as how he'll fit in New England's defense, I see some similarities between Rivers and Chandler Jones, the Syracuse defensive end who the Patriots took in the first round of the 2012 draft. Rivers is an inch shorter and about 20 pounds lighter, but he has similar explosion off the snap, and the ability to move from blocks to the backfield in a hurry from more than one gap. Jones had the additional advantage of training with his brother, noted UFC fighter Jon "Bones" Jones, so he had a leg up when it came to hand-fighting, so to speak.

With the Patriots from 2012 through 2015, Jones amassed 41 sacks, 45 quarterback hits and 148 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus. The Patriots traded Jones to the Cardinals before the 2016 season, and though the New England defensive line created a lot of pressure last year, it was interior lineman Trey Flowers who led the team with seven sacks—a step down from Jones' 13 the year before.

Like Jones, Rivers has experience in two- and three-point stances, and he's lined up on either shoulder of the tackle. It will take time before Rivers' arsenal of pass-rush moves are as evolved as Jones' are, but it generally takes any collegiate pass-rusher a year to get the hang of NFL blocking schemes. (Jones had six sacks, nine hits and 28 hurries in 786 snaps in his rookie year.)

If Rivers can come close to that kind of production right off the bat and expands on it over time, he'll be yet another steal for a franchise that has a knack for finding the right players for its defensive schemes in all kinds of places. And the more late bloomers for New England, the better.