The history of the New England Patriots’ pass rush boasts some star-studded names. From all-franchise players such as Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Willie McGinest to more recent stars such as Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower, the Pats have had plenty of standouts at getting to the quarterback.
However, since trading Jones in 2016 and jettisoning fellow linebacker Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns only a short time later, the Patriots’ pass rush has suffered some major setbacks. Many fans point to the team’s embarrassing defeat in Super Bowl LII. However, the issue has impacted the Patriots in much deeper, more prolonged ways. Ranking tied-for seventh in sacks in the 2017 campaign, the numbers for the Patriots are not completely unfavorable. However, many fans saw the glaring holes along the edge in 2017.
Injuries to key players, such as Hightower, ravaged the Patriots’ season as many fans theorized over how to fix the defense. Bill Belichick, however, had a plan of his own. With returning promising talent in Deatrich Wise, Trey Flowers, and Malcolm Brown already on the roster, Belichick and company acquired defensive tackle Danny Shelton from the Cleveland Browns and signed former Atlanta Falcon Adrian Clayborn to improve the front seven depth.
Among the depth chart, however, the Patriots seem to lack a true athletic edge, a hole they have failed to fill since the Jones trade. The best potential suitor for this role may lie internally, in the likes of 2017 rookie Derek Rivers.
Derek Rivers: New England Patriots X-Factors
Rivers is an unheralded name to some in the New England fan base. The Youngstown State product was the Patriots’ top draft choice in 2017 as a third-round selection. That same year, the Patriots had traded their first and second round selections for Brandin Cooks and Kony Ealy, respectively. While Cooks played a prominent role in New England, Ealy struggled mightily and was released before the regular season began. Ealy, who was intended to provide the Patriots with not only a depth defensive linemen but an impact edge player, opened a void for then-rookie Rivers to fill.
Can Derek Rivers Overcome Injury?
Almost all former rookies share similar stories on their first NFL season. The pace of play, practice intensity, and intellectual aspects of football are increased 10-fold, and many struggle to adjust right away. Often, the best solution is for rookies to gain reps in practice and build momentum throughout the season. However, that can often be hard for rookies to do if they are not even able to participate in practice. An unfortunate ACL tear sidelined Rivers for not only the summer but the 2017 season as well. This injury proved to be at the worst time of Rivers’ young career, as he now had to rehab a significant knee injury while also learning and adjusting to the analytical side of football.
However, this curse may become a blessing in disguise (in a way). Many rookies who suffered early injuries attest as such. An injury in your rookie year takes away the immediate stress of performing well on the accelerated NFL field. Rivers, by not being able to play, allows himself to learn the Patriots’ defensive system while not worrying about performance. This injury, while terrible for a young player looking to make an impact, enables Rivers to adjust to the NFL mindset, playbook, and scheme mentally, while allowing him time to adjust to on-field performance later on.
While Rivers appears healthy entering camp, it will be a challenge for him to remain healthy and productive consistently. However, if Rivers can recapture the athletic explosiveness he possessed at Youngstown State, he may prove to be the steal of the 2017 draft.
Can Derek Rivers Beat Out Roster Competition?
Rivers may have had a whole year to gain a knowledge of the Patriots’ scheme, but now comes his time to translate talent in the film room to talent on the field. The Patriots have made it no secret they wish to improve their front seven, and went about as such this off-season. Adding both Shelton and Clayborn to a defense that already possesses stars Trey Flowers and Hightower may make it difficult for Rivers to gain a prominent role early on.
However, both veterans project as more rotational players than every-down stars. Shelton has established himself as a two-down run stopper with not much value on third downs. Clayborn, apart from his dominant performance against the Dallas Cowboys a year ago, was mostly a rotational pass rusher.
The pieces on the team already will not provide much challenge to Rivers either. Both Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are used as inside linebackers. Trey Flowers can only occupy one edge position. The defense, without Rivers, lacks a second edge with natural athletic ability.
That is where Rivers fits into this defense. Athleticism was his calling card coming out of college. Pending a major setback in his rehab, Rivers should be able to recapture that natural ability. Rivers suits exactly what this defense needed under new play-caller Brian Flores, and should presumably slot right into a starting edge role with potential to be an every-down, star player.
Last Word on Derek Rivers
Overall, fans should expect the Patriots to ease Rivers into playing time. The Patriots are in no rush to play Rivers every down and are able to let him progress at his own pace. Expect Rivers to begin as a rotational, pass-rush specialist piece. However, his natural athleticism and technique he flashed in college project his role to expand and potentially become a star. He should be a household name in New England come season’s end.