The New England Patriots are lucky Derek Rivers played in the Football Championship Subdivision. If he’d played his college ball in a Power Five conference, he likely would have been long gone by the time the Patriots went on the clock in the 2017 NFL Draft.
After a series of trades that left New England without a pick in the first two-and-a-half rounds, the clubÂ used the 83rd overall selection to draft Rivers, a defensive end out of Youngstown State.
Rivers arguably was the best pass rusher in Division I’s lower circuit last season, racking up 14 sacks, 21 quarterback hits and 19 1/2 tackles for loss for a Youngstown team that lost in the FCS national championship. After watching some of his college film, it’s easy to see why the Patriots took a liking to him.
The above highlight came from Rivers’ most productive game of 2016 — a three-sack performance in a win over Illinois State — and it showcases the quickness and hand technique that allows him to speed past less nimble tackles.
Ditto for this one, from the Penguins’ loss to West Virginia this past September:
Rivers’ game isn’t all about beating his man around the edge, though. Here’s an example of him bulldozing a Northern Iowa tackle as he rampaged into the backfield:
Rivers didn’t get to the quarterback on that particular play, but he did at a key moment later in that same game. This sack, which came on third-and-7 with less than five minutes remaining in regulation, forced a Northern Iowa punt, and Youngstown State scored the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing possession:
Of course, Â Rivers faced weaker competition at Youngstown State that he would have if he’d played at, say, Ohio State. That’s what made the Senior Bowl such an important opportunity for him in the pre-draft process.
Playing alongside and against some of the nation’s top NFL prospects, Rivers acquitted himself well at the annual showcase. He helped force an interception early in the game by bench-pressing Mississippi State tackle Justin Senior into Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs, then sacked Cal QB Davis Webb after blowing past fellow Patriots draftee Conor McDermott.
Rivers’ strength and athleticism were evident in hisÂ NFL Scouting Combine numbers, as well. He posted the fourth-fastest 40-yard dash time among defensive linemen (4.61 seconds), the third-fastest 3-cone time (6.94 seconds) and the fourth-most bench press reps (30, tied with third overall pick Solomon Thomas).
Rivers lined up in a three-point stance for most of his collegiate snaps, and he almost always played on the left side. He also saw some time as a stand-up defensive end in head coach Bo Pelini’s defense, though, and occasionally dropped back in coverage.
And, as you’d expect from someone who fell to the latter half of the third round, his tape wasn’t perfect. He sometimes struggled to set the edge, allowing quarterbacks and running backs to get outside of him, and probably will need to beef up a bit from his current weight of 248 pounds to have the same success at the NFL level against bigger, more physical tackles.
That being said, Rivers has tremendous upside and should immediately help the Patriots, whose biggest need entering the draft was at pass rusher.
“(Rivers) played competitively in the All-Star games and in a good program there with Coach Pelini, who we know very well,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Friday night. “Bo does a great job with his players and his team. Derekâs been in a good system, has been well-coached. Even though heâs from a smaller school, weâll see what he can do for himself here, as well, when all is said and done.”
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Thumbnail photo viaÂ Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports Images