A Butkus Award semifinalist for the nation's top collegiate linebacker, outside 'backer Keith Rivers was one of the leaders for a University of Southern California Trojans defense that was among the best in the nation last year. The team finished the year ranked fourth in run defense (84 yards allowed per game) and second in fewest points allowed per game (16 points). Rivers was a huge part of that as he finished the season with 78 tackles (44 solo), five tackles for a loss and one quarterback pressure. He also recovered three fumbles, caused one and deflected four passes. For postseason awards, Rivers was named to the All-Pac-10 first team (for the second year in a row) and a quarterfinalist for the Lott Trophy. His career numbers, combined with his potential and versatility, make him one of the best options at his position in this year's draft.
Rivers is one the better athletes in the draft at the linebacker position. He displayed his versatility by playing in all three linebacker positions at the Senior Bowl practices. Rivers has experience lining up in a three-point stance and dropping back to play safety in various zone coverage packages. He is also a sure tackler that is great at keeping the play in front of him and closing in on the ball carrier. His versatility could likely be his biggest attribute at the next level.
Rivers has a well-defined frame and one of the strongest upper bodies among the class of linebackers. At the NFL Combine in February, Rivers was able to bench press 225 pounds 24 times, which was among the top at the position. He has room on his frame to add more bulk. His upper body strength allows him to bring down tacklers with just his arms and is one reason why he can recover quickly from misreads or when he overruns a play; something he has a habit of doing.
While not the fastest linebacker in the draft, Rivers matched the best outside linebacker time from the combine with his 4.51-second 40 time at USC's Pro Day. Rivers posted a 42-inch vertical jump at his Pro Day, as well, and he reportedly looked sharp during his positional drills. He has good agility and could be used to cover both running backs and tight ends off the line of scrimmage. He has a ton of experience playing in big games and some of the best instincts at the position. Rivers was also a hard worker in the weight room as he was named the team's Co-lifter of the Year.
He played in 12 games (11 starts) last year and 49 over his four-year career, but Rivers will have to answer questions about his durability. In 2005, he was forced to miss two games due to a hamstring strain. Last year, it was his ankle that was the issue. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle to remove bone spurs following 2007 spring practice, but the injury appeared to bother him during the season and forced him to miss one game. Rivers didn't run at the combine after apparently tweaking his right ankle.
As strong as his upper body is, Rivers will have to work on his lower body strength. Even when he is on the move, Rivers has a tendency to be taken out of plays by bigger blockers or by double teams. His five tackles for a loss last season were a bit low for a player of his caliber.
Rivers can also be too aggressive. He has shown a tendency to bite on play-action and ball fakes, but has been able to make up for it with his athleticism. Rivers has also shown a tendency to go for the big play, which sometimes causes him to miss tackles.
Expected Draft Placement
Some scouts question whether Rivers benefited from being flanked by two top 2009 prospects because his athleticism on the field seemed to outstrip his production, and there remain some questions regarding the left ankle that he had surgery on last year. Rivers is not considered an elite prospect such as San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis was last year; however, he could be selected outside of the top 10 where Willis went in the 2007 draft. Rivers is, however, the best player in a weak draft class at the position.
With the seventh overall pick, the New England Patriots could be looking to add youth to their aging core of linebackers while finding a replacement for linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. The Cincinnati Bengals could also look at Rivers with the ninth overall pick. Finally, the New Orleans Saints are also a team that could use the help at the position despite adding linebackers Dan Morgan and Jonathan Vilma during the offseason; don't expect him to drop much further than them at the 10th pick. If those teams pass on him, he could slide all the way to the latter stages of the first round due to team needs.
About Bryce McRae
Bryce McRae is a Managing Editor with KFFL and has been involved in fantasy sports since 1999. He joined KFFL as a volunteer writer in March 2005 before becoming a Hot off the Wire Analyst in March 2006. He began working in his current capacity in September 2008. His work has appeared on fantasy sports sites such as Yahoo! and CBS Sportsline as well as in print. He graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2008 with a B.A. in History and U.S. Studies.
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