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Draft profile: No longer a secret, Derek Rivers could be ideal understudy to Cliff Avril

Youngstown State defensive end experienced Seahawks-style football under Bo Pelini; explosive combine might overcome FCS pedigree come draft day

Photo by Bill Dutch/Wire Services

When Todd McShay released another new mock draft last week I didn’t pay much attention. I hardly ever read mock drafts to begin with—partly because, like Kenneth Arthur alluded in his roundup of McShay’s picks for the Seattle Seahawks, it’s just a cottage industry of endlessly varied takes that no one bears any accountability for, like someone filling out sheets of NCAA tournament brackets, all of them different, all of them wrong, none of them submitted for any stakes. Especially so this year, when it seems like few analysts agree on who’s any good or what teams might do.

Indeed, I don’t even study the draft too closely because I loathe gathering information with so quick an expiration date. I don’t watch enough college football and I don’t dig through scouting film, while Draft Twitter only reaches me like voices from other rooms. Thankfully Field Gulls has many contributors better than I for feeding you draft breakdowns. But I do read a lot about football and I do have some players I like, so I’ll share with you some of my favorite names for the Seahawks as the draft approaches—on the off chance any of it matters later.

What made me notice McShay’s April 12 mock was his selection of Derek Rivers by Seattle with the 90th pick. Responding to McShay, Arthur cautioned that Rivers, who played at Youngstown State, could be a reach for the Seahawks in the third round, pointing out his level of college competition and failure to match his high numbers of backfield takedowns in his occasional matchups against power programs. “It’s an entirely different thing to get 38 sacks in the Big Ten than it is to do it in the Missouri Valley Conference,” Arthur said.

I agree it’s unlikely for Seattle to draft Rivers at 90, but not for the same reasons as Kenny: I just don’t think he’ll be available that late.

Back in February, when writing about how Youngstown (and former Nebraska) coach Bo Pelini’s defense was modeled after Pete Carroll’s, I mentioned that connection as a reason to remember Rivers for the Seahawks “on day three.” But my projection then was based squarely on the small school pedigree and other factors that Arthur highlights. However, Rivers’s Senior Bowl and NFL Combine performances have since lifted him up draft boards so that Rivers is now looking like a high second round—if not late first round—choice. I would be stoked if Rivers were available to Seattle at the 58th pick. Getting him at 90 would mean the Seahawks got a very good value indeed.

But my interest in Rivers isn’t limited to the imaginary consensus of draft projections. As I mentioned, I don’t care for that stuff at all. What I do trust are analysts like Charles McDonald, of the Falcoholic and Setting the Edge podcast, who points out Rivers’s elite explosiveness off the ball and agility at changing direction as expressed in figures like his 6.94-second 3-cone drill time (in the 90th percentile among edge rushers at the combine). McDonald highlights Rivers’s excellent gap discipline, which is more exceptional considering the temptation for someone with such an athletic advantage over FCS blockers to freelance on the backside.

Just look at that whole article for a comprehensive examination of Rivers’s skills rushing the passer and at the line of scrimmage, and why McDonald says Rivers “might be most polished run defending edge this year.” But McDonald also answers the weak competition critique: “Small school players need to check three boxes before investing a high pick in them: perform well at the combine, dominate their collegiate competition, and have a strong All Star game performance. Rivers checks all three of these boxes.”

The Senior Bowl workouts in particular demonstrate Rivers’s potential to match up athletically and technique-wise even to top opponents. “Rivers’s ability to stress an offensive tackle’s pass set with his get off is truly special,” wrote John Owning after Rivers lit up the practices in Mobile. “His ability to disrupt the relationship between the offensive tackle and quarterback sets him up to succeed in the NFL.” According to McDonald, Rivers’s measurable traits match perfectly to those Dan Quinn seeks in defensive line prospects, and McDonald was convincing enough that the Falcoholic’s Dave Choate picked Rivers with Atlanta’s choice in the first round of SB Nation’s collective mock draft. Quinn, you may have heard, also runs a defense modeled after what Carroll does in Seattle.

This scheme heritage is what led me to monitor Rivers in the first place, so I want to be careful not to put too much emphasis on it. Carroll’s alignments and schematics don’t seem as idiosyncratic on the front end as they do in the defensive backfield. Certainly players have been able to come from other systems and excel on the end of the line for the Seahawks without having been steeped in the same background, so Seattle is in no way chained to drafting Rivers. But if they do get him, the group of skills Rivers deployed in Pelini’s defense suggest to me he is most likely to understudy Cliff Avril’s position as a wide-7 or sometime five-technique than convert to outside linebacker as some experts project.

Because of Rivers’s lean mass (at 248 he is only a handful of pounds lighter than Avril was when drafted in the third round in 2008, but where Avril was in the 88th percentile that year among OLBs Rivers is in the 7th percentile in his own combine class—showing how much bigger edge athletes have gotten), some analysts translate him to the NFL as a SAM in the 4-3 …

…which seems to me like confusion owing more to where Rivers would fit in a 3-4 setup. Where Seattle made that strongside transition with Bruce Irvin in 2013-15, who coming out of West Virginia had a similar height and size to Rivers, Irvin had longer arms and was much faster than Rivers—who has more power with 30 reps in the bench press compared to Irvin’s 23 reps as a prospect. Avril was also faster than Rivers in straight-ahead 40-yard dash, but Rivers has the superior short shuttle time and had a 10-yard split during his 40 of 1.61 seconds showcasing his aptitude for close quarters more than stretching out in coverage. McDonald’s podcast partner Justis Mosqueda complimented Rivers’s pad level when taking on blocks, calling him “the hands above eyes champion of this draft class.” Again, those are elements best suited to playing in the C-gap around the line of scrimmage than out in the flat.

Adds Mosqueda: “I think he's a lot better than just about everyone is saying.” Although 20 pounds lighter, Rivers’s combine measurables (complete with his relatively short arm length and smallish hand size) give him a spider chart distribution at his position most similar to Stanford’s Solomon Thomas, who is expected to be a top 10 choice. Maybe I’m overrating Rivers because he’s a name I happen to have already heard of before I read so much scouting praise—and maybe it’s a waste of time because he probably won’t be around at a good slot for the Seahawks to draft him—but it’s a pairing that makes sense when considering scheme and personnel, and definitely got me to look twice at a mock draft that I’m otherwise conditioned to ignore.

And even if the Falcons nab Rivers first, who knows? There will be plenty more chances to get Avery Moss ....