By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As 80-plus Patriots plodded off the practice field, Derek Rivers stayed behind.
The third-year edge rusher out of Youngstown State put in extra one-on-one work after the end of the first minicamp practice of the season on Tuesday in Foxborough, running drills with Patriots pass rushing assistant Joe Kim. The coach’s martial arts expertise has helped the front-seven with hand and footwork. It was a classic Patriot kind of thing: grinding just a little bit more, if only to be a notch better than you were two hours ago. Or in Rivers’ case, about eight minutes.
Rivers is sharpening up and keeping the faith that his second full season in the NFL will mark his emergence. The 25-year-old has a big opportunity in front of him to make a year-two jump in the Patriots defense. There’s uncertainty on the edge after the departure of Trey Flowers. Rivers is right there looking to step in, like he was for much of 2018.
The good news is there’s a prominent recent example of a Patriots defender who barely played initially before leaping forward in his second full season: Flowers. The now-Lions defensive end was active for only one game as a rookie for the Pats in 2015, before emerging as a playmaker on the edge late in 2016. Of course, Flowers’ second-year bloom culminated with a pivotal sack late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI against the Falcons.
No one knew what Flowers was going to be after his first season. Can Rivers reach similar heights in his de facto sophomore year?
There’s a good chance that the Patriots put Rivers in position to succeed in January. He’s been on the team two seasons and made as many Super Bowls. But as a devout Catholic, Rivers has a way of keeping himself humble despite knowing nothing but football in early February. And he also remains faithful that he will make an impact with a full NFL season under his belt – but only after continuing to prove himself over the next few months.
“We’ve just got to wait until camp, that’s the real thing, honestly,” Rivers told 985TheSportsHub.com. “But we’re working hard toward it, praise god, just got to keep working with Joe, keep working with the coaches and prepare and just come out here and compete.”
“I’m glad we have him”
It’s an immense challenge to keep the faith after what Rivers has endured to start his NFL career. He’s actually entering his third season, but his rookie year was cut short after tearing his ACL in practice during the 2017 preseason. And although he avoided major injuries in 2018, he was only active for six games – and averaged 13 snaps at that.
But in a sign that the Patriots have the same kind of faith in Rivers that the edge rusher has in himself, Belichick activated him for both the divisional round against the Chargers and the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs. Rivers only played 19 snaps against the Chargers and didn’t see the field against the Chiefs, but Belichick certainly viewed him as the next man up in those spots.
Now, Rivers has much more of an opportunity for meaningful contributions in 2019. Even Belichick acknowledged in late December that the Patriots’ health and depth on the edge made it hard to get Rivers on the field regardless of his progress or performance.
“This year we’ve been totally healthy [at DE] so the opportunities, well we have more people for the same number of opportunities, but last year was a totally different situation so it couldn’t be more different from year to year,” Belichick said before a Week 17 tilt against the Jets. “When [Rivers] had an opportunity, he’s done well with it, both in practice and in games. I think he’s got a really good future. I’m glad we have him. He could be a good player. I think he is a good player, it’s just kind of a little bit of a situational thing right now.”
Rivers has been good at telling himself how far he has to go as a player after one complete season. His extra work with Kim is a small sign of the inner push he’s imposing on himself. But maybe he’s not far away from echoing Flowers with some big plays of his own in year two. This is his first real chance to make that leap.
And even if he doesn’t, he’s putting in the work for some powerful reasons. That conviction could ultimately have him making the sacks in January and February this time around.
“Honestly, we come out here and we play for him, we play for God, our families,” Rivers said. “It’s a new season, new year. You come back to it and, God willing, you make that run with them.”
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.