Derek Rivers, who was born in Augusta, played only six games in his first two seasons with the New England Patriots after suffering an ACL tear as a rookie in 2017. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The hottest practice of the summer had wrapped up long ago, and Derek Rivers’ family was still waiting for him to come off the field.

Fighting off the sweltering heat, Rivers shed the jersey and shoulder pads, but prolonged his workout by about 20 minutes. He fine-tuned his pass-rushing techniques alongside Nick Thurman and Terez Hall, two inexperienced players with long odds of making the New England Patriots’ 53-man roster.

Rivers is a more recognizable name than his postpractice workout buddies, but he’s hardly more experienced. In two NFL seasons, Rivers has played a total of six games. He’s recorded one career sack, which came in the closing seconds of the first half in Week 17 against the Jets a year ago. Rivers, aligned on the edge, stunted inside and accelerated toward Sam Darnold. The Jets’ quarterback dropped to the ground to avoid what would have been a crushing hit.

For Rivers to experience that feeling again, he knows he needs as many pass-rush reps as he can get, even when they’re coming in 90-degree heat and a half-hour after practice officially concluded.

“It’s definitely a mental battle,” said Rivers, who was born in Augusta but grew up in North Carolina. “Praise God, it’s worth it in the end. Just got to continue to (remind yourself) of why you’re working for it.”

Drafted in the third round in 2017, Rivers arrived in New England with considerable expectations. He’s been more closely monitored than most third-round picks, and that’s probably because he was the club’s top pick from the 2017 draft class (the Pats traded their first-round pick for Brandin Cooks and moved out of the second round in a trade for Kony Ealy).

Draft status aside, Rivers has always possessed an intriguing skill set. He submitted ridiculous numbers at the NFL Combine, clocking a 4.61 40-yard dash and a 6.94 three-cone drill – exhibiting the agility of an NFL wide receiver – while pumping out 30 bench press reps.

It was arguably the most impressive workout by any recent Patriots draft pick.

And the Pats are still waiting for that potential to morph into production.

The major roadblock should be well behind Rivers. It’s been nearly two years since he suffered a torn ACL while covering a kickoff during joint practices against the Texans. The injury wiped away Rivers’ entire rookie season. Even though he insists he was perfectly healthy at the beginning of his second year, the rehab process consumed most of his 2018 offseason. And when he was ready to go, Rivers was buried on a depth chart that included Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Adrian Clayborn and the several linebackers who play on the edge.

This summer, things are lining up in Rivers’ favor.

He’s been working consistently with the first unit. The early-camp absences of Wise and Michael Bennett also created additional opportunity for Rivers.

For the most part, Rivers has capitalized. In a one-on-one drill on Wednesday, Rivers bull-rushed through backup offensive tackle Cedrick Lang, dropping the 6-foot-7, 300-pounder to the ground. Listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Rivers looks bulked up this summer, but he says he’s the same weight as he was in his rookie season.

The Patriots drafted Rivers as a pass-rusher. That’s the role he figures to occupy in 2019. Because of his athleticism, Rivers could be asked to drop into coverage, though. When he discussed the players he’s worked with, he mentioned mostly linebackers.

“I’m blessed to be out here,” Rivers said. “It’s awesome because you’ve got a great room of guys – KV (Kyle Van Noy), (Dont’a) Hightower, Trent Harris, Jamie Collins.”

And the coaches, by all accounts, are still high on No. 95.

In December, Coach Bill Belichick noted that Rivers “has a really good future.”

“I’m glad we have him,” Belichick said. “He could be a good player. I think he is a good player, it’s just kind of a little bit of a situational thing right now.”

Rivers believes last season was a valuable learning experience. He specifically cited his practice reps against Trent Brown as an important part of his development. He learned “how to prep, how to lift, what to expect, game reps and how fast the game is.”

Now, it’s just a matter of putting it all together.

“To be out there and compete with guys, not so much look at is as a position battle, but to get better every day and do what the coaches tell you to do and your game is going to elevate,” Rivers said. “Especially on days like this, you’ve got to grind it out.”


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