Friday, August 18, 2017

Knee Injury Shelves Rivers For Season

The New England Patriots have lost their top draft pick for the season.

Rookie Derek Rivers suffered a season-ending knee injury on Wednesday in a joint practice between the Patriots and the Houston Texans.  He remained on the ground for a few minutes while being tended to by team medical staff, but arose and walked off the field under his own power, prompting optimism that the injury wasn't serious.

Turns out, it was.

As the Chicken Little crowd will tell you, the injury doesn't bode well for the depth at defensive end, especially in the wake of Rob Ninkovich's retirement along with other bumps, bruises and attitudes along the edges, but it isn't like the defending world champions have no options to fall back on.

The first option is to look at the fact that the rest of the personnel along the defensive line fit mostly into a 3-4 look to begin with, though players like Rivers, newcomer Kony Ealy and rising star Trey Flowers made it possible for the Patriots to switch fronts to a 4-3 look on a whim, particularly given the depth the team sports at linebacker...

...which is where Rivers fit anyway, as he was and is too light to consistently set the edge as an every down defensive end and is more in the Jamie Collins strong side linebacker mode, and would probably have been brought along slowly, in much the same manner as Collins was.

A quick look at the defensive depth chart shows that the Patriots are rich in five-technique ends and outside linebackers, which screams 3-4.

With true nose tackles Malcom Brown (6' 2", 320) and the like-sized Vincent Valentine able to control interior gaps, New England can flip-flop between three and four man fronts with relative ease, as five tech defensive ends Flowers (6' 2", 270), Ealy (6' 4", 275), former-Raven Lawrence Guy (6' 4", 300), rookie Deatrich Wise (6' 5", 271) and surprising undrafted free agent Adam Butler (6' 5", 300) can fill a multitude of roles.

The key to being able to transition into both lies mostly with tackle Alan Branch, anyway, as the 6' 6", 350 pound man-mountain is the team's top run-stuffer, and can do such from virtually anywhere along the line.

At linebacker lies a diverse group headlined by Dont'a Hightower, who is at his best as a weak-side interior 'backer - the same goes for Jonathan Freeny - while the "Mike" position is well-manned with veteran David Harris and second-year load Elandon Roberts.  On the outside, where Rivers really belonged, the Patriots still have depth in Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and dynamic undrafted rookie free agent Harvey Langi...

...not to mention that the Patriots normally play in their three-safety Big Nickle alignment, where the team's strong safeties become weak side linebackers in the scheme - plenty of versatility to compete and win.

Perhaps the players with the most to gain from Rivers' injury are Langi and Adam Butler.  Langi was already headed towards a roster spot and Butler was rising quickly on the depth chart, as this offseason of attrition appears to be making the Patriots younger and younger, while still maintaining a solid veteran presence.

The second option is to scour the waiver wires and break out the rolodex to find another defensive end - and while this is a possibility, head ball coach Bill Belichick already has pieces in place to mitigate the loss, so long as health is on the upswing.

In the end, losing a player of Rivers' potential is never good, but perhaps the Patriots will be able to unearth some diamonds in the rough that will serve them well for years to come.

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