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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: It is sink-or-swim time for fourth-year man Derek Rivers

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Related: Patriots roster breakdown: DT Beau Allen

NFL: JAN 20 AFC Championship Game - Patriots at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With only a few days to go until their entire roster will report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have 75 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s front-seven.

Hard facts

Name: Derek Rivers

Position: Outside linebacker/Defensive edge

Jersey number: 95

Opening day age: 26

Size: 6-foot-4, 250 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Following a series of trades, the Patriots selected a league-low four players during the NFL’s 2017 draft. The highest of those picks was invested in Rivers, who had spent the previous four years at Youngstown State and is one of just two members of New England’s 2017 draft class to still be on the team. As opposed to fellow defender Deatrich Wise Jr, however, Rivers’ impact on the defense has been limited three years into his professional career — mainly because of injuries.

Rivers missed his rookie campaign after tearing his ACL during joint training camp practices, and also had to sit out Year Three following a knee injury suffered in preseason. In between, he saw irregular action as a rotational edge defender: Rivers appeared in six regular season games and one playoff contest during the 2018 season and has a grand total of 97 defensive snaps on his résumé. One of those ended in his lone career sack, with three others resulting in additional quarterback disruptions.

What did his 2019 season look like? Rivers’ first year in the NFL was derailed by injuries, and his third one was off to a rocky start as well. While he did see considerable action with the starting defense early on during training camp and generally looked good during one-on-ones and in team drills, he suffered a knee injury during the second preseason game that forced him to miss the remainder of the exhibition schedule and later led the Patriots to move him to their injured reserve list on roster cutdown day.

The move put an early end to what had originally shaped up to be a positive year. Rivers, after all, built an impressive case to make the Patriots’ 53-man team before his season-ending injury. New England used him primarily as a stand-up outside linebacker in its 3-4 alignments, and he appeared to be comfortable in this role. Furthermore, he also saw plenty of action during the preseason: he played 32 of a possible 112 defensive snaps over the first two games (28.6%) as well as seven of 48 (14.6%) on special teams.

His snap numbers would certainly have been higher if not for his injury early in the second contest. When he was on the field, however, Rivers performed well and registered a pair of sacks while also continuing his improvements in the running game. Of course, however, an injury ruined what could have been a promising season for the second time in three years.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? Ever since arriving in New England as the 83rd overall draft pick in 2017, Rivers was used as an edge/outside linebacker whose primarily responsibilities came as a situational pass rusher. Heading into his fourth year in the system, there is little indication that his role will change. While he could see more early-down action if he can continue to improve as an edge setter in the running game, the expectation is that Rivers’ main job will be to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks in obvious passing situations.

What is his special teams value? Rivers has played only three special teams snaps in his regular season career, but the Patriots do not appear to be opposed to using him in the game’s third phase. Before his injury last preseason, after all, he was used on both punt units as well as the kick return squad. While this may not necessarily be a sign of things to come, it does show that the 26-year-old offers some value in the kicking game.

Does he have positional versatility? Even though he was primarily used as a pass rusher when he was able to get onto the field over the last three years, New England has moved him around the formation a bit within this role. He saw the majority of his snaps aligning from the 5-technique position out, but the coaching staff also employed him as an interior sub rusher at times in 2018. His overall versatility is comparatively limited, though.

What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of the four-year rookie contract he signed with the Patriots in 2017, Rivers hits team’s salary cap with $974,724 — a number consisting of his $735,000 salary as well as a fully guaranteed $200,724 signing bonus proration and $39,000 in workout bonuses. The structure of this pact is pretty straight forward: if Rivers fails to make the 53-man roster, only his signing bonus proration will remain on New England’s books this year.

What is his roster outlook? Rivers has flashed his talents at time in 2018 and especially during the 2019 preseason, but he has yet to put all things together and become an impact player for New England. The problem is that his time is running out: he is in the final year of his deal, and not guaranteed a spot on the roster despite the personnel turnover within the team’s defensive front-seven. The former third-round pick will have to fight for his job this summer, but a performance like last year’s could certainly put him in a good position.