There wasn’t much of a break-in period for Derek Rivers on Thursday night.
It took the first snap from scrimmage for a defensive end who hadn’t played one in 364 days.
Rivers cut through the backside as Washington Redskins backup quarterback Colt McCoy handed the football off to begin the opening drive at Gillette Stadium. From there, he nudged rookie right tackle Geron Christian Sr. into the lane Rob Kelley was exploring.
Rivers then ended the exploration, colliding with the running back after a gain of one yard.
It was the type of play that the top pick in the New England Patriots’ 2017 draft class was unable to make a year ago. A torn ACL, suffered during a kickoff drill in joint practices with the Houston Texans last August, shut down Rivers’ rookie season before it began.
Rivers is, in a sense, still a rookie now. But the Youngstown State product is one with a year of experience to apply.
“Right, well, Derek’s situation is a little bit different than some of the other players we referred to – guys that were on the practice squad, for example, last year that practiced the entire season but didn’t get a chance to play in the games,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on his conference call Friday. “Derek really didn’t get very much in training camp, and of course, he didn’t practice at all during the year. That’s kind of the bad news. The good news was that the injury occurred very early and he rehabbed very well, so he’s been able to participate in everything that we’ve done this spring. He hasn’t missed a thing.”
Rivers played a total of 32 defensive snaps in New England’s 26-17 exhibition win over Washington. He was in on three tackles, including an assist downfield against Kapri Bibbs after 11 yards and a stop on another back, Samaje Perine, following a pickup of one.
“I mean, shoot, you got to play the run to play here,” Rivers told reporters as training camp got underway in July, via Patriots.com. “You’ve got to be able to defend the run. So just to be able to work and work on my craft, on all aspects of my game, it’s to become an all-around player.”
Rivers appears on track. Bending the edge and converting speed to power aren’t issues for the 24-year-old, either. It was clear Thursday that they’re still integral to his game.
Redskins offensive lineman John Kling can attest.
At the two-minute warning of the first half, Rivers bulled his way into the 6-foot-8, 330-pound Kling, who got caught looking inside. No. 95 went so far as to put No. 63 on skates before the latter could get into his pass set. It was too late.
Through the B-gap Rivers went, hitting Kevin Hogan just after the ball left the third-year QB’s fingertips.
Officials called roughing the passer on Rivers. Though if there were a do-over, it’s unlikely the Patriots’ coaching staff would have told the redshirt freshman to do anything differently.
“He’s worked very hard, very diligently and is in great shape and has been able to take a lot of reps, which he needs, and improve,” Belichick added of Rivers. “He’s still got a long way to go and there’s an element of him making up the reps and experience that some of the players last year who were rookies, either on the practice squad or on the 53-man active roster, were able to gain some experience that he wasn’t able to gain. But, as I said, there’s nothing we can do about that now.
“The good news is he works extremely hard. He’s in good shape, he hasn’t missed anything out there, so he continues to practice hard, to learn, to get better, to make adjustments and improvements and just keep grinding it out. That’s what he can do, that’s what he should do and it’s what he’s done. So, we’ll see how it goes.”
New England’s preseason opener went as building blocks do. And for Rivers, perhaps his most impressive glimpse didn’t result in an official statistic, but in the body of work and the awareness he displayed just one minute after drawing 15 yards in flags.
Rivers aligned in a four-point stance on third-and-11. The ball was snapped and the Patriots’ left defensive end ran the arc. He used his inside arm to strike down the initial punch, his flexibility to swim underneath Kling’s outside shoulder, and his quickness to send his man into a sideways jog.
It allowed for a setup.
Rivers could have stayed on that roundabout course, lost containment and exposed an escape route for the quarterback. Instead, he put on his blinker, read the depth of Hogan’s dropback and redirected.
Rivers squared and bench-pressed Kling as he did so. And the results drove the Washington tackle into the pocket just as Hogan checked into the flat for a completion short of the sticks.
Retired Patriots edge-rusher Rob Ninkovich, serving as WBZ’s sideline analyst, took note during the broadcast.
“I’ve trained with him this whole offseason,” Ninkovich said of the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Rivers. “He’s a big, strong man. He can bench – look at his arms. He’s got big triceps. I mean, that’s where you got all your bench power, through your triceps and your chest.”
It’s a matter of how that power is put to use. Rivers put up 30 reps of 225 pounds at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. He complemented that strength by clocking a 4.61-second 40-yard dash, a 6.94-second three-cone drill and a 35-inch vertical leap. Those athletic measurables wouldn’t have meant much if they weren’t reinforced on film and in production. They were.
Rivers amassed 41 sacks while at Youngstown State, a school record that placed him fifth in Division-I FCS history behind Montana’s Zack Wagenmann, Alabama A&M’s Robert Mathis, Cal Poly’s Chris Gocong and Southern Utah’s James Cowser. The two-time All-American and three-time first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection would close his tenure with 47 quarterback hurries, as well, to go with 173 tackles, 56.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
And by No. 83 overall that April, the Patriots had made Rivers the second-highest draft choice in program history.
Rivers and Arkansas defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr., taken in the fourth round, are all that’s left from the smallest draft in the franchise’s archives. Wise sits with five sacks and 16 games on his NFL résumé. Rivers, meanwhile, sits 51 weeks removed from having his rookie year lost.
Both will have a place in a rotation featuring Trey Flowers and veteran Adrian Clayborn, who joined the depth chart on a two-year, $10 million deal in March.
“Nobody works harder than those two guys,” Belichick said of Rivers and Wise as the calendar flipped to August. “Nobody. It’s hard to find a time that they’re not in this building.”
Eric Lee, who joined off the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad midway through 2017, also made a case to stay in the building for his work versus Washington. The same goes for undrafted rookie Trent Harris out of Miami, who turned an unblocked rush into a strip-sack that would be returned 53 yards by 2015 third-rounder Geneo Grissom.
But Rivers got the start. It proved worth the wait.