FOXBORO, Mass. — Long after their New England Patriots teammates have finished practice, chatted with family and exited the field, rookies Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise still are putting shadow swim moves on invisible blockers behind Gillette Stadium.
If you want to talk to one of the rookies, you’ll have to wait. They are the last ones off the field, and the approach seems genuine, not just a ploy to get coaches to believe they’re dedicated.
And it’s paying off. Wise, a fourth-round draft pick, looks primed to start opposite former Arkansas teammate Trey Flowers at defensive end. And Rivers, the Patriots’ top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, also has been playing with first-teamers the past two days with linebacker Shea McClellin out of practice.
Both players started organized team activities in the spring at the bottom of the depth chart, and they’ve ascended before even playing their first preseason game.
“I’ve felt good so far, especially from OTAs,” Rivers said Wednesday. “This has been fun, just doing whatever coaches want me to do, and I’ve tried to do it to the best of my ability.”
Rivers played outside linebacker in high school and at Fort Union Military Academy before transferring to Youngstown State and converting to defensive end. The third-rounder has played both defensive end and linebacker in practice with the Patriots, as is typical for a player of his size in New England. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound defender fits in the same mold as McClellin, Mike Vrabel or Rob Ninkovich.
“Any time a D-lineman gets to stand up, you feel it’s a different feel, a different look,” Rivers said. “You see a little more, your vision expands. It’s fun, just trying to take it step by step, day by day and try to get better every day.”
Experimenting so much with a rookie seems like it could be overwhelming. But head coach Bill Belichick just wants to see what his players can do at this point in the summer.
“Derek’s long, he runs well, he’s athletic, he’s got good quickness, good explosion,” Belichick said Wednesday. “We’ve done that with a lot of players, especially younger players, putting them in multiple positions and see how they fit best in our scheme with different packages they might have value in or how we could use them in different roles, depending on what our needs are that particular week or in that particular grouping of people.
“So, definitely some trial and error on our end. But Derek works hard. He’s adapted well. He’s tried to do everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s making good progress, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Rivers and Wise are roommates during training camp, and they’ve been leaning on one another to learn the system. If all goes as planned, they’ll be playing in the same defense for the foreseeable future.
“That’s my boy,” Rivers said. “From Day 1, I could see he was a hard worker, so we just bond well together. So, to be able to have somebody out there to work with you is a blessing. …
“If I have questions on something, he’ll help me, if he has questions, we’ll help each other. Even when we’re on the field, we’re asking questions, who’s in rotation.”
Rivers should receive plenty of playing time Thursday in the Patriots’ preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. And he could wind up playing plenty of positions, too.
Thumbnail photo via NESN