Courtesy of Youngstown State University

Steelers Show Interest in Edge Rusher

Jon Ledyard spoke with a young pass-rusher from a nearby school who's already had one extensive meeting with the Steelers.

MOBILE -- Ryan Anderson, Cam Sutton and even Nate Peterman are the names that have been most commonly linked this past week to the Pittsburgh Steelers. But some of that talk has been fueled by fan desire.

Another more local prospect has been in their sites here at Senior Bowl practices. 

Few were hyping Youngstown State edge pass-rusher Derek Rivers as a prospect to watch heading into the event, but all the FCS product has done is prove more capable of handling top-tier competition snap-to-snap than any other edge in Mobile. 

And the Steelers have taken notice.

“I’ve met with Pittsburgh already this week,” said Rivers. “We have more formal meetings tonight, and we may meet again.”

Based on the many prospects with whom I've spoken, very few had met with the Steelers as of Thursday afternoon. 

The team's brass will meet with plenty of players by the end of the week, of course, but the fact that Rivers was one of the first prospects they've pinpointed certainly indicates they’ve been impressed by his tape and his performance here.

“I would love to go to Pittsburgh,” Rivers said. “That would be so cool. I love that area, I’ve been down there a couple times whenever we could. Me and my buddies that are from the Western PA area, we’ll go to Pittsburgh and hang out. I just love the area in general.”

A native of Kinston, North Carolina, Rivers attended Fork Union Military Academy for a year before moving on to Youngstown State, where he finished his four-year career with 37.5 sacks. Rivers set the school record for sacks as a junior, dominating opposing tackles with power, athleticism and variety off the edge from both two and three-point stances.

“Most teams see me as a 3-4 outside linebacker, or just an outside 'backer in general in a 4-3, SAM position,” said Rivers. “I’m totally comfortable playing there.”

Rivers is an athletic 6-4, 255 pounds, and can throw a bull rush at tackles or beat them with a speed rush and shoulder dip up the arc. 

There are areas of his game that must continue to evolve, including recognizing and utilizing counter moves, but Rivers is already a talented pass-rusher who might display an ultra-high ceiling if he tests well at the Combine in Indy.

“My biggest growth has come from understanding and reading what the tackle is giving me,” Rivers said. “Mixing up the moves, adding a little more power; in this league you’ve gotta have a little more speed-to-power, so that’s one thing I’ve been trying to work on out here.”

What Pittsburgh certainly appreciates is Rivers’ run defense, in which he stands out as one of the more technical and mentally sharp edge defenders in the class. He does so many little things right, such as setting the edge, winning chest control, staying leveraged and following block-down/step-down rules when he’s unblocked. He shows surprising nuance for a small-school prospect. 

The same fundamental principles are in play when Rivers is attacking the quarterback, something he did early and often this week, both in 1v1s and in team drills.

“You have to play low, man,” he said. “Your get-off, your leverage and your pad level is what wins rushes. That’s what gets you sacks.”

If he tests as well as expected, Rivers will be a coveted Day 2 pick by NFL teams. He’s plug-and-play as a run defender, and is developed enough as a pass rusher to make noise even as a rookie. 

Rivers' game will only get better from this point, especially given his reputation for hard work and dedication to craft.

I believe he’ll end up being one of the better value picks in the top 60, and a perfect fit both schematically and skill-wise for what Pittsburgh wants to do. Their interest in him will continue to be a very interesting pre-draft storyline to watch.

PRACTICE NOTES

- I’ve written extensively about how talented O.J. Howard and Evan Engram are as receiving tight ends, but what isn’t getting enough attention is how both are displaying strong traits and execution as blockers. 

Howard is the superior in-line player and shut down Houston LB Tyus Bowser repeatedly in pass protection 1v1s, even putting him on the ground at one point. 

Engram isn’t as big or long as Howard, but he’s crafty and capable as a blocker, making the most of his physical tools to protect the pocket. He’ll get docked as a blocker because he’s smaller than your average tight end, but the tape and this week of practice reveal a player willing and able to complete in-line duties when needed.

- I need to get to his tape, but the Cooper Kupp love coming into the week has me scratching my head. The Eastern Washington WR is a good route runner with strong technical skills but Kupp is neither fast nor explosive and fails to create separation within his route stems like Ryan Switzer, Trent Taylor or even Zay Jones, the best route runners here. His role will be as a possession receiver, but I’m not sure the athletic traits are there for him to be a true playmaker at the next level.

- Notre Dame DL Isaac Rochell had a really strong week, using his long arms as effective levers to keep blockers off his frame during 1v1s. He’s a high-motor guy with violent hands and some surprising bend to get back to the pocket when attacking the outside shoulder of the guard. He projects to a five-tech role in the NFL, so there’s a schematic fit with Pittsburgh as a 3-4 defensive end. But I’m not sure the Steelers have a need there with L.T. Walton playing so well to finish the season. 

If Rochell falls in the draft, he could be a good value pick on the draft’s third day.

- Illinois DE Dawuane Smoot has generated some buzz here with his explosive first step and active hands at the top of the arc. He beat Bucknell’s long-armed RT Julie’n Davenport on back-to-back reps in the first team period, and then again in the second session. Smoot also played from a two-point stance and looked good, something he didn’t do in college that could help kickstart Pittsburgh’s interest in him.

- A third-down, short-yardage, blocking/receiving back could be a priority for the Steelers on Day 3 of the draft, especially if DeAngelo Williams doesn’t return. 

North Carolina State’s Matt Dayes could be an excellent option if his tape matches what he's shown this week during the individual drills and 1v1s. Dayes created about 10 yards of separation on Ben Boulware during one route, and was the only back or tight end in pass protection who could handle the Clemson linebacker during backs-on-backers. 

He’s a bowling ball of an RB with a well-rounded skill set that lacks any top-tier traits, which probably means a great value pick on Day 3 for teams already set with a feature back.


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