BBD Assistant Editor: Joe Marino
As part of an overhaul to the Buffalo Bills’ linebacker depth chart that included two free agent signings and two draft picks, Keith Rivers signed a two-year, $4 million contract to help improve a position at which the Bills have had very little consistency in recent years.
While Rivers has not lived up to the billing of his selection as a top-10 draft pick, he is a useful player who can bring stability to the defense on a modest contract.
A three-year starter for the USC Trojans, Rivers amassed 240 tackles and 18.5 tackles for loss and was a two-time coaches’ first-team all-Pac-10 selection in his collegiate career. Rivers also had an outstanding pro day where he ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at 6’2” and 241 pounds, and leaped an impressive 42” in the vertical jump, according to NFLDraftScout.com. All of this led to Rivers being selected ninth overall in the 2008 NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Rivers has started 47 games in the first five years of his NFL career. While he has never produced the gaudy statistics indicative of a top-10 draft selection, Rivers has been a sound contributor against both the run and pass despite not being used in an every-down capacity.
After playing three seasons with the Bengals, Rivers missed the entire 2011 season with a wrist injury, then was traded to the New York Giants in 2012 for a fifth-round draft pick. Rivers was a part-time starter for two seasons with the Giants.
Rivers is a smart player who operates well within his defensive scheme and is consistently in the correct position. He has solid play recognition skills and sound instincts while he rarely overpursues plays or is found out of place.
Setting the edge and maintaining outside leverage is a major strength to Rivers’ game. Off-tackle runs to his side are frequently forced back inside where he has help. Rivers does a lot of the “dirty work” for his team that enables others to make plays.
Taking on blocks and shedding them to make tackles is something Rivers does well. He locates the football and is a secure, wrap-up tackler. In pursuit, he can sift through trash to get to the ball and close windows. Altogether, Rivers is a physical and stout run defender with good instincts and awareness.
As a pass-rusher, Rivers offers very little. Primarily an off-the-line-of-scrimmage blitzer, Rivers does not convert speed to power well enough to make any impact as a pass-rusher. Combined with a lack of bend, Rivers has only managed three sacks in his NFL career. His lack of ability to pressure the quarterback limits his role and value to the team.
While Rivers is an average pass defender in man coverage, he doesn’t function as well in zone coverage. He is good at re-routing and jamming receivers crossing through his zone, but he lacks instincts when defending the ball thrown in his area.
His subpar offerings as a pass defender limit Rivers to a two-down role as a run stopper. His skill set lacks diversity, so his value is somewhat minimal. That said, he is an excellent run defender who should be able to help on special teams coverage units.
How Keith Rivers Fits the Bills Defense
You could do much worse than Keith Rivers as a starting-strong side linebacker in a 4-3 system. While he doesn’t transcend the defense, he is a cerebral, unheralded and solid player. Opinions tend to be skewed on Rivers because he hasn’t lived up the expectations of a top-10 draft selection, but if you remove that label, you can see that Rivers is a useful player who can be part of a strong run defense.
Adding economic, low-cost, solid contributors in free agency is vital to round out a complete roster. Rivers provides just that with the modest deal he signed to become a member of the Bills.
The addition of Rivers allows the Bills to move Manny Lawson back to defensive end, where he excelled in college, while Rivers can effectively replace the physical run-stopping edge presence that Lawson provided the Bills at linebacker in 2013. Rivers can play around 40-50 percent of Buffalo’s defensive snaps and provide consistency against the run.
As previously stated, Rivers does a lot of the “dirty work” on defense. On a team with a downhill presence in Brandon Spikes, a rangy player in Kiko Alonso and a penetrating defensive line, he fits perfectly.