FOXBORO, Mass. — Derek Rivers’ rookie season ended before it began. Now, the young defensive end is fully healthy and ready to contribute.

Rivers, the New England Patriots’ top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, is practicing without limitations in organized team activities, which began Monday on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.

“It’s a blessing, bro,” Rivers said after Tuesday’s session, the first that was open to the media. “It’s always a blessing to be able to come out here and have this opportunity. … My knee and everything feels awesome.”

That meeting with reporters was Rivers’ first since he tore his ACL during a joint practice with the Houston Texans last August. The Youngstown State product spent the entire season on injured reserve as was off limits to the media.

Reflecting on that lost year, Rivers said being sidelined actually benefited him and helped in his development as a player.

“Nobody ever wants to have an injury, but praise God. It’s all in his plan,” Rivers said. “My faith helped me get through it. It was a good rehab process. I was able to learn the defense, and I wasn’t away from the building, so I could do everything but be out here on the field. So it was a blessing. It actually made me a better player.”

He added: “It helped out. It helped out a lot. It definitely helped build confidence. Obviously, coming in here, your rookie year is almost like your freshman year in college. So now it’s just listening to the coaches, staying in the playbook and just getting ready to roll for each practice and just try to get better each and every day.”

Rivers, a third-round draft pick who racked up an impressive 14 sacks as a senior in 2016, said he didn’t feel distant from his teammates while he rehabbed his injured knee.

“This is an awesome organization,” he said. “I’ve got awesome teammates. They’re the best teammates ever. Those guys, they’re real supportive. I lifted with a lot of those guys, and I was in all the meetings with them.”

Having Rivers back in the fold should bolster a Patriots pass rush that struggled at times in 2017. He’s a candidate to start opposite standout defensive end Trey Flowers, who led the team in sacks in each of the past two seasons.

Flowers, who had a hand in mentoring Rivers and fellow 2017 draft pick Deatrich Wise last summer, was one of 10 players absent from Tuesday’s practice.

Thumbnail photo via Zack Cox/