FOXBORO -- Derek Rivers has had a decidedly bumpy start to his professional career. He tore his ACL in training camp as a rookie third-rounder in 2017. Then last season he played in just seven games, including a Divisional Round win over the Chargers, that saw him take 97 total defensive snaps.
Rivers recorded a sack in Week 17 last season -- the first of his young career -- but the football world saw very little of him thereafter as his team made a run to its sixth Super Bowl title.
In Saturday's training camp practice, though, his potential was on display yet again. And it was on display in a more consistent manner than we've seen from him before. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder won both of his one-on-one pass-rush reps against Tyree St. Louis, showing off a nice blend of speed and power, and then he flashed his strength again in an 11-on-11 period later in the practice.
Playing on the right defensive edge as a standup outside linebacker, on a run to his side, locked horns with tight end Stephen Anderson. Unable to gain any traction, Anderson dropped to his knees and running back Damien Harris ran into Anderson's back. Credit Rivers -- who was seen primarily as a pass-rusher when he was drafted out of Youngstown State -- with the run-stuff.
"It's always good when you have a good play," Rivers said later. "You always feel good. But now it's the time that you gotta keep doing it consistently. Try to build off of it and every day work on something you didn't do the day before. You just kind of try to build up that way until you go into the regular season and see what happens from there."
Coming into camp there was some question as to whether or not Rivers would make it to the regular season with the Patriots. He hadn't established himself as a regular contributor through his one healthy campaign, and the team drafted Chase Winovich -- another outside linebacker-type -- in the third round in the spring. It looked as though Rivers' hold on a roster spot was tenuous.
But if Rivers can continue to string together performances like the one he had Saturday, he could very well have a role come September. He said that with a full season post-ACL surgery under his belt, he's feeling better in 2019.
"There definitely is a normal battle, a bridge that you have to cross, but by the grace of God, he had me ready," Rivers said. "After a couple months I was good to go. Felt good last year. Feel even better this year."
What might benefit Rivers in his third season is a bit of a philosophical shift defensively for the Patriots. They appear to be a team that could run a base 3-4 defense -- with three stout defensive linemen, two outside linebackers and two off-the-ball linebackers -- with their personnel.
Players like Mike Pennel and Danny Shelton fit the profile as 3-4 nose tackles. Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler look like 3-4 defensive ends. Then Rivers, Winovich, Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and John Simon would be good fits as outside linebackers in those types of fronts.
For Rivers, who was a traditional defensive end in college -- coming out of a three or four-point stance -- playing as a stand-up linebacker may allow him to highlight his athletic traits as someone who can excel in space.
"We got great coaches," Rivers said, "and they do a great job of putting guys in places and allowing us to play and use our versatility . . . Whatever the coaches tell us to do -- drop, rush whatever it may be -- we try to do it to the best of our abilities."
Rivers doesn't project as a starting-level player at this point, regardless of how Bill Belichick deploys his front. But even so, he'll have some skilled players to learn from who might help him pick up a real role in the outside linebacker rotation.
"It definitely is good to have a versatile group," he said. "You got KV, Hightower and Jamie. You see them dudes out there doing it, obviously these guys have been playing for a long time, and they have a lot of experience so I'm gonna be able to try to do the same things as those guys.
"Definitely, sometimes as a dude who's had his hand in the dirt you feel a little more athletic. It's fun, man."
The pads will be on for the Patriots again on Sunday, their second consecutive day with contact. We'll see if Rivers can put together another impressive showing, because as he put it, "now it's the time that you gotta keep doing it consistently."
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