Could Derek Rivers Be A Patriots Linebacker?

In the 2013 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots selected an edge rusher from a lesser-known school in the second round that ended up being a fantastic choice.

Jamie Collins.

Jamie Collins came out of Southern Mississippi and was one of the best young players that has come through Foxborough in recent years, being 1/3 of a terrific linebacker trio for the Patriots that helped him win a ring in 2014 and take part in a great season before being traded in 2016. The one thing Collins was most known for was the freakish athleticism he had, and his ability to easily blow up plays. His “freelancing” and willingness to get a big payday was what led to him being sent to Cleveland, and the Patriots were lucky enough to get Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts to play meaningful snaps for a team seemingly devoid of good linebacker talent.

In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Patriots selected an edge rusher from a lesser-known school in the third round that appears to have similar talent. That’s Derek Rivers from Youngstown State.

Rivers is a freak athlete that played the edge in a 3-4 outside linebacker-type position for the Penguins (GREAT team name. Love it.). It’s very similar to what Collins did as a member of the Golden Eagles (another solid name). Their profiles are relatively similar, but it is unclear whether or not Rivers’ story comes out in the same way as Collins’ did (in the playing style and fit sense, not the trading because he was looking for a contract way). Let’s compare them, as well as the other Patriots linebackers in recent years.

Athleticism

lb combines

The Patriots’ benchmarks for linebackers were found by NESN’s Doug Kyed. You can follow him on twitter here. Blanks were unable to be found, whether due to skipping tests or not attending the combine for measurements.

Rivers hits nearly every mark for a Patriots linebacker, save for being an eighth of an inch off on the hand size and .07 seconds off the short shuttle. When compared to Collins they are almost identical. Collins was a bit weaker and had better explosiveness numbers. Rivers and Collins match up very well here, and the Patriots clearly miss athleticism like that.

On-Field Talent

Jamie Collins was a 3-4 outside linebacker for Southern Miss, and he often showed how raw he was as a prospect. It was clearly warranted for him to end up as a second round pick, although he was put in a great position to learn. As a member of the Patriots, Collins spent most of his time in the OLB role, but did his best pass-rushing work as an A gap blitzer (highlight clip here). If the team wants Rivers to do that, they have to rely on his speed and strength to blow back interior linemen. I found some clips of him doing that on the outside and up the middle.

Rivers timed faster in the 40 yard dash compared to Collins, but was slower in the 10 yard split, which is more important in a role like this. While it is clear he has the talent to do that, it is unclear whether the Patriots would like to play him there.

The Patriots are one of the most unpredictable teams in the NFL, and the way they use their personnel in mix-and-match forms is impressive. Rivers clearly has the talent to play as a linebacker, and it’s likely that they’ll at least try him there. His true position lies on the edge, but when the season rolls around we will find out where Matt Patricia and co. want to play him.

Which Undrafted Rookies Could Make the Patriots’ Roster?

The Patriots aced the draft this year. To recap how they used their picks:

Round 1, Pick 32: Traded to Saints for WR Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick.

Round 2, Pick 64: Traded to Panthers for DE Kony Ealy

Round 3, Pick 83: Derek Rivers, EDGE, Youngstown State

Round 3, Pick 85: Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy

Round 4 Pick: Traded to Colts for TE Dwayne Allen

Round 4, Pick 131: Deatrich Wise, EDGE, Arkansas

Round 5 Pick: Given up to Bills for RB Mike Gillislee

Round 5 Pick: Traded to Chiefs for TE James O’Shaughnessy

Round 6, Pick 211: Connor McDermott, OT, UCLA

Round 7 Pick: Traded to Lions for TE Michael Williams

All of these players will be important pieces for the Patriots this year, and this is easily the best haul of the year compared to the rest of the league. Even though the team only drafted four players, they ended up with six more in other ways, and still had a decent amount of roster spots left to fill to get to the limit of 90 for training camp and the preseason. This meant that they could sign plenty of undrafted free agents. These are players that were not selected for any reason. Undrafted free agents, or UDFAs, that have made the Patriots in recent years are Malcolm Butler, David Andrews, and Brandon Bolden. Other former UDFAs that impacted the team recently include Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and LeGarrette Blount. There is a very clear track record of succeeding within the organization as an undrafted player, so here we can look at some people from this year that have a chance to make an impact. Let’s get into it.

Harvey Langi, LB, BYU

Most well-known for supposedly being given a first round grade by the Patriots last year despite staying in school, Langi is an impressive linebacker prospect that should have been considered in the later rounds of the draft. He is a very athletic linebacker that was questionably moved to the edge rusher position in 2016 after finding success playing the MIKE and WILL roles for the Cougars in the year prior. He collected 68 tackles with 6.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions as a linebacker, and in his lone year coming off the edge he had five tackles for loss and two sacks. It is clear that he will fare better if the Patriots move him to linebacker, as he shows good range and instincts that can translate to the pros. Langi moves very well and flies around the field, delivering hard hits wherever he goes. He may need more work with his discipline, and he missed tackles at times, but there’s a solid foundation to work upon for Matt Patricia. Considering the lack of depth and talent at linebacker for New England, it would not be a surprise to see Langi make the team for Week 1.

Jacob Hollister, TE, Wyoming

Hollister’s brother Cody, a former receiver at Arkansas, was also brought onto the team, which is a cool thing to see in football. Jacob was arguably more important to his team in 2016, where he was part of a potent offense with Brian Hill and Tanner Gentry, as well as some underclassmen. He was able to collect 32 catches for 515 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2016. In the Cowboys’ offense Hollister was frequently moved around in an Aaron Hernandez-esque role, where he went from fullback to in-line to wideout in almost every game. Hollister shows decent blocking skills, although he could add more strength in an NFL weight program. He has impressive run-after-catch ability where he shows some good elusiveness and speed for a tight end. While he did have some issues with drops, he was not helped by his quarterback, future draft bust Josh Allen. The reason Hollister has such a good chance to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster is because of a large question mark at the third tight end spot behind Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen. While the team traded for James O’Shaughnessy, he is mainly a special teams player that was not much of a factor on offense. The team also returns former tackle Michael Williams, who is not much of a threat in the passing game either, remaining more of a blocker. Ideally there is a good in-between player, and that just may be Hollister.

DJ Killings, CB, UCF

Killings earned the most money out of any Patriots UDFA, with over $30,000 in guarantees. While teammate Shaq Griffin got most of the buzz around draft season, Killings is a talented CB that tested very well for his class. At Central Florida’s pro day, he ran a 4.38 40 yard dash, as well as bench pressing 22 reps, which would have been tied for the most of any defensive back at the NFL Combine. Killings may be considered a little undersized at 5-10 and 190 pounds, but he showed off his strength and he plays with tenacity. While at Central Florida, he was able to collect 8 tackles for loss, as well as five interceptions. Showing the ability to attack the ball is an important trait that Bill Belichick greatly values in his defensive backs. The Patriots have a stacked cornerback depth chart, but one spot left up in the air is the cornerback who plays in the slot, who must have good man coverage skills and be very athletic. This may be the spot for Killings, who could follow in the footsteps of Malcolm Butler and make the team early in his career.

Josh Augusta, DL, Missouri

To call Josh Augusta a space eater would be an understatement. At 6-4 and 345 pounds, he is a mass that can be hard to move when he is on his game. Augusta makes his best moves in the run game, where he uses his strength and leverage to collapse lines. He collected 19 tackles for loss and 4 sacks in his Tigers career, and while he’s a little slow to be a sack master on the interior, he’s a clear force against the run. Augusta was also known for being used in the run game on the other side of the ball as well, collecting two rushing touchdowns in the red zone. While that’s less likely to happen in New England, the former Mizzou standout will likely have a chance to make some plays on the Patriots’ defensive line. While they have a solid four interior linemen with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, and Lawrence Guy, Branch may be on his way out soon and a younger player with similar talents could take his place.

Cole Croston, OL, Iowa

A former 225-pound walk on for the Hawkeyes, Croston comes out as a 6-4, 315 pound offensive tackle with experience all across the offensive line. The Patriots went back to a very familiar pipeline with Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, who has a history of churning out strong prospects on both sides of the lines. Croston missed four games in the past season due to a lower body injury, but when healthy he played on both the left and right tackle spots of the offensive line. While he played on the outside for his career, many believe he best projects to the inside as a guard. Croston is relatively weak for the position, only benching 17 times, but he had an impressive 3-cone as a bigger guy, and his athleticism is decent for his size. His true weakness is just that; weakness. He gets pushed around far too often as a tackle, and that must change if he is going to face bigger players inside. The Patriots enter training camp with not a lot of depth on the interior of the line, with just Ted Karras behind Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason. Most teams carry around 8 or 9 offensive linemen, and with four tackles and four interior players solidified, it will be a fight for Croston. Considering his advanced technique while working with Ferentz at Iowa, I would say he has the upper hand in the battle.

Dont’a Hightower Should Be the Patriots’ Top Priority

The Patriots have made some pretty crazy moves since free agency began: they’ve traded for tight end Dwayne Allen, they signed the Bills’ former top cornerback in Stephon Gilmore, and there’s been talk of trading Malcolm Butler for Saints’ speedster Brandin Cooks. These moves would all improve the team at positions that would become a need considering their departing free agents. Gilmore is a step above Logan Ryan at possibly a lower price. Allen is about 85% of the player Martellus Bennett was, and his contract is at least $3 million lower than Bennett’s will be. And the trade of Butler would be surprising, but they just signed a top corner and could possibly survive without him. The addition of Cooks would bring a new element to the offense with his speed and deep ball ability. Fans should be excited about the moves they are making. But there is one more move that they have to make: bringing back star linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

Hightower has been a stud since being drafted by New England with the 25th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft. Since then, he has collected 372 tackles, 17 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 17 run stuffs. His best work comes when he’s playing against the run, and run defense has long been a staple of a Bill Belichick defense. Hightower also works as the Patriots’ on-field signal caller for the defense, or “wearing the green dot,” which is the helmet with a communicator to the defensive coordinator. He is in charge of making adjustments to the defensive fronts and putting them in a better position to succeed on a play-by-play basis. This is a role that is extremely important for any defense.

While he is known for his run defending skills, Dont’a Hightower is also a strong pass rusher from the middle linebacker position. The “mike” is a spot that many teams don’t use as a pass rushing player, but the Patriots are known to throw a wrench into conventional playing. One of the most exciting plays defensive coordinator Matt Patricia used to call in passing situations was bringing Hightower and former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins into the A-gap, lined up on either side of the offense’s center, and have one or both of them blitz the passer. It was a play that was often called, and it worked wonders for the team, with a defense that loves to confuse quarterbacks. Although Collins played a major role in this, after his departure Hightower was still able to collect two sacks in the games after his teammate was traded.

The biggest concern with paying Hightower is his durability. He plays an aggressive game that features plenty of hard hits, and that can take a toll on him at times. In his five year career, he has played all 16 regular season games just once (2013, his second year). He has had a variety of issues, including a torn shoulder labrum, a sprained MCL, and various leg injuries. Paying a premium player that has injury issues can get dicey, as the team can be on the hook for a big paycheck even if the player is in the training room more than the meeting room. While it is not a huge concern, as Hightower has played through some injuries, it is something that should be noted by the team.

The Patriots should be working diligently with Dont’a Hightower’s agent to get a deal that he will play on done as soon as possible. Other teams should be salivating at the thought of the former Alabama linebacker in the middle of their defense, and Hightower and his team can use that to their advantage in the negotiations. A fair deal for him would be one that pays about $13 million a year on average, with bonuses to play a certain amount of games in a season (say, an extra $1-2 million for playing all 16 regular season games). Hightower is a focal point of the defense, and the team could struggle without him leading the charge against some of the best rushing attacks in the game. Fans should be waiting with bated breath to see the news of his return, and could end up on the opposite end of the spectrum of emotion if he is signed by another team. Look for #54 to be back on the field in Foxboro this fall if everything goes well.

Possible Patriots: Round 4

After an exciting win in Super Bowl 51 the New England Patriots will be picking at the end of the each round of the 2017 NFL Draft. While the draft is a ways away in late April, it is always interesting to project who each team might select. One of the more mysterious teams when it comes to the draft is the Patriots. It’s hard to know which way Bill Belichick will go when he is on the clock in Philadelphia. We started talking about the first round last week, the second round here, and most recently the third round. Now it’s time to move on to Day Three of the NFL Draft, which is where things will be crazy, as it’s the last day of the draft. Let’s get into it, starting with round four.

Tanzel Smart, DT, Tulane

smart-sack

One word that often is used to describe Tanzel Smart: explosive. While standing at a stout 6-1 and 305 pounds, his first step is almost unmatched in terms of interior defensive linemen in this draft class. He quickly comes out of his stance at the snap, and he can generate good power when he does this. He used his abilities to collect 19 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2016. While he can lose his balance sometimes while being blocked, he is a solid defensive tackle that does a lot of what the Patriots ask their linemen to do; plug gaps in the offensive line so running backs can’t run through them. This is a vital part of the defense, and it’s part of why New England’s defense has been consistently successful. It’s also one of Smart’s better abilities, and why he should be on the Patriots’ draft board when their pick in the 4th round comes around.

Storm Norton, OT, Toledo

norton-blocking

Storm Norton is a large man. Coming in at 6-8 and 310 pounds, he will be one of the taller offensive tackles in the NFL. He uses his length and strength to be a strong presence as a bookend for the Toledo Rockets’ offense, and he did well in 2016. His quarterback, Logan Woodside, averaged 10 yards per attempt as a passer, and running back Kareem Hunt rushed for almost 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns. These statistics are normally indicative of a strong offensive line, and Norton led that group. It is almost impossible to beat him with a bull rush from defensive edge rushers, and even some speed rushers can’t get past him. Norton shows good strength and he knows how to “build his house,” or get himself in good position before facing a rusher, in pass protection. Adding Storm Norton doesn’t just bring an A+ name to New England, it brings in a young offensive tackle that line coach Dante Scarnecchia can mold and make into a great backup for Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon.

Matthew Dayes, RB, NC State

dayes-cutback

If the Patriots are interested in drafting a new running back, they could look to return to the NC State Wolfpack well and select Matthew Dayes. A year after Jacoby Brissett departs the school, Dayes rushed for 1,166 yards on just under 250 carries, good for a 4.6 yard per carry clip. He also collected 10 touchdowns on the ground, as well as 267 receiving yards on 32 catches. The gif above showcases his vision and ability to make cuts, especially to the backside of a play, which is an important skill for running backs. He is elusive in space, and runs with more strength than is expected of someone at his size. He has reliable hands in the passing game, and has shown the ability to pass block at an average level. Dayes has been a solid do-it-all type back for the Wolfpack in his time with the team, and he was voted a team captain in his senior season. Even standing at 5-9 and a shade over 200 pounds, Dayes was one of the toughest and most competitive players on NC State’s team, and he was loved by coaches. These are the kind of things professional teams love to hear, and the Patriots will surely have him on their radar.

TJ Watt, LB, Wisconsin

watt-disrupt

Yes, you’ve heard that last name before: TJ is the youngest brother of JJ Watt, the Texans’ defensive superstar. Being the third Watt brother to come to the NFL by way of Wisconsin, TJ was part of what made the Badgers’ front seven so strong this year. He was able to collect 15.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks while playing across from fellow linebacker Vince Biegel, who could also be a consideration here. While Watt apparently has the same work ethic and passion that his older brother has, he is undersized to be a truly effective edge rusher in the NFL, and he needs to improve his techniques and skills to make an impact in the pros. The Patriots are in need of linebackers and edge rushers, and Watt would be a great choice to fill the void, possibly at both spots, in the fourth round, if he lasts that long.

Michael Roberts, TE, Toledo

roberts-td

Another member of the Toledo Rockets, Roberts has been getting some late hype that could propel him to an early Day 3 selection. He is similar to Alabama prospect OJ Howard in that he is a good run blocker and receiver, although he played lesser competition and is not quite the athlete Howard is. Even though he comes from a relatively run-first offense, Roberts still collected 45 catches for 533 yards (11.8 yards per reception) and 16 touchdowns in 2016 alone. He has some good run after the catch ability and shows his strength off while running and blocking. Roberts’ hands are relatively reliable, which is the most important trait a receiving tight end can have. He may need some work on his blocking technique, as he often can be caught with his hands outside of the numbers on defenders, and can be thrown off balance with a “rip” move from some linebackers. Roberts also needs to refine his route running, which is a common problem with many tight ends coming into the league. Although he may never be a superstar, Michael Roberts would be a good selection for the Patriots, who may be in need of a second tight end if Martellus Bennett leaves in free agency.