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The Patriots’ 2017 draft class is showing some signs of life this summer

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NFL: JUL 27 Patriots Training Camp Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the NFL’s 2017 draft was in the books, the New England Patriots had added just four players to their roster — fewest in the league and the smallest draft class in franchise history. Of those four selections, two did not even make it to the regular season. The rest, on the other hand, remains standing three years later: third-rounder Derek Rivers and fourth-round pick Deatrich Wise Jr. are entering the final year of their respective rookie deals.

Both are now trying to change the perception of what was a rather forgettable draft class for the Patriots so far.

Based on their training camp performances this summer, the two just might succeed. Rivers and Wise Jr. had some impressive moments over the last few weeks to position themself well in the race for roster spots and roles on one of the NFL’s better defenses: they repeatedly made big plays in the practice setting and appeared to fit in well with what New England is trying to do on their side of the ball — something that was not always the case over the last three seasons.

For one reason or another, they never quite lived up to the potential they had entering the NFL. Now, however, the two appear to be on the right track as Bill Belichick also noted during his recent media availability sessions.

“It’s great to have Riv out there,” New England’s head coach said last week. “He’s had a very good camp and really is playing with a lot of confidence. He’s gained a lot of strength and explosiveness, as well as rehabbing the injury, as you mentioned. His overall body composition, strength, power is good. It’s a very competitive position. We’ve got a number of players there that all, I think, bring a lot to the table.”

Rivers’ biggest issue over the course of his pro career was injuries. He missed his rookie campaign after tearing his ACL in training camp, and also had to sit out Year Three following another 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 just 97 defensive snaps to his name.

Now, however, he finally seems to have hit his stride by improving his technique and becoming more consistent manning the defensive edge.

“We’ve seen a lot of good competition at that position and it will be interesting to see how all that plays out, but Derek has done a good job, and he’s well ahead of where he’s been in the past,” Belichick said about the 26-year-old. “Each day, it seems like he gets a little more consistent, a little more confident, and I think he should be able to help us.”

Wise Jr, meanwhile, remains the most productive member of the Patriots’ 2017 draft class to this day and the only one to see regular action in all three of his seasons as a pro.

He has appeared in 46 regular season games and five postseason contests so far, and also played a prominent role during the Patriots’ victory in Super Bowl 53. That being said, Wise Jr. showed plenty of promise early on in his career, but has not been able to consistently build on it: he has been used primarily as a role and rotational player and saw his time on the field take a hit following New England’s move to a 3-4-based defense last summer.

The fourth-year man did adapt to the change this year, however, and added some weight to his 6-foot-5 frame — a move that could pay dividends based on his practice performances over the last two weeks.

“Deatrich is a very unique player,” Belichick said about Wise Jr. on Wednesday. “He has such a big frame and a good frame. He’s the type of player that can put on a significant amount of weight based on the scale and not really look too much different. I think that’s really been the case. I know we talked about that when the season was over, we’ve talked about it several times since then, but I think the weight that he’s put on has been good weight.

“He’s worked hard at it. He doesn’t look a lot different than what he looked like before or last year at a lower weight. So, I think his play has improved. I think some of that is due to technique and experience, but he is a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger. I think that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, but in the end, I think the major improvement in his play from what I’ve seen so far this year in training camp has been his technique, how quickly he reads and reacts and recognizes plays and just improving in some of the fundamentals.”

Despite his fluctuating playing time between 2017 and 2019, Wise Jr. proved himself a serviceable and versatile member of the team’s defensive front-seven. While not a starting-level player by any means, he accumulated a total of 13.5 sacks and also developed nicely as a run defender. His résumé so far may not be an eye-popping one, but it is certainly solid for a player who saw 130 others come off the draft board before he heard his name called.

“He’s a very hard worker, and he’s the type of kid that when you ask him to work on something, he really goes all in and makes a strong commitment to try to improve it and make it better,” continued Belichick when speaking about Wise Jr. “That’s been evident this year in the areas that he’s dedicated himself to improve in and that’s shown up on the field. I’ve really been impressed with what he’s been able to do so far.”

While not guaranteed a spot on New England’s roster, Belichick’s praise and his development this summer make it hard to project the 26-year-old off the team come opening day — something that cannot be said that definitively about Rivers.

Nevertheless, Wise Jr. and Rivers continue to hold the flag high for the smallest draft class in Patriots history for the time being. And if their training camp is any indication, they might continue doing that through the 2020 season as well.