Indianapolis spent some time this week with Southern Cal's Keith Rivers. Rivers is an middle linebacker prospect and is one of the most coveted players at his position in a very deep and talented linebacker draft.
In three seasons with the Trojans, he started 37 of 39 games, missing two contests with a hamstring injury during the 2005 season. During his time at Southern California, he obviously played in a number of big games against quality competition, as the Trojans are perenially one of the nation's top teams.
For his career, he registered 162 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and two interceptions. He possesses the kind of speed, awareness, and playmaking ability that every team that runs the 4-3 defense is looking for in a linebacker.
He is also a tenacious hitter, has a knack for forcing fumbles, and takes good angles to the ball carrier — not often getting caught up in traffic, but also very rarely guilty of running around blocks.
He is currently ranked anywhere from 11th overall (by Scout.com), to 19th overall and appears to be, at this juncture, a sure-fire first round selection.
Where he is currently ranked, the Colts would probably not have a realistic shot at him even if they had a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.
However, it's still early, with the Senior Bowl, the Combine, Southern Cal's Pro Day, pre-draft interviews and meetings, and three months of "paralysis by analysis" between now and when commissioner Roger Goodell takes the podium at Radio City Music Hall.
Rivers makes an interception against Cal
For example, Rivers was ranked as high as eighth overall heading into the 2007 college football season. Many draftniks hypothesized that he would be a top-10 selection, if not a top-5 selection, in this year's draft if he turned in a solid campaign in 2007. While he showed the same skills that he exhibited his first two seasons with the Trojans, he failed to register a game-altering play, tallying up zero interceptions and zero sacks. This is one of the reasons he has dropped slightly in the rankings.
The other attributes of Rivers that give NFL scouts pause are his inconsistencies in coverage, though this is not considered a glaring weakness, his current playing weight of 235 pounds, though his 6 foot, 3 inch frame could accommodate more weight fairly easily, and that fact that no one knows for certain if he was productive during his college career because he's a talented player, or because of his supporting cast on defense — five other Southern Cal defenders are projected to be drafted in the first three rounds.
If all of this sounds like nitpicking, well, it is. But, since Rivers seems like such a natural fit in any 4-3 defense in the league and seems sure to step directly into the lineup and become a star, potential risks and red flags need to be addressed before any team commits the time, resources, and energy that go along with a top-10 selection.
He can quiet any remaining skeptics by playing well in the Senior Bowl, turning in the solid workout numbers that everyone knows he is capable of at the Combine and his Pro Day, and being his regular, jubilant self in interviews with teams and the media.
The possibility does exist that he will not accomplish any of those feats and see his draft stock plummet. Heading into the 2007 draft, Alan Branch was almost universally ranked fifth overall. Poor workouts at the Combine, coupled another winded performance at his Pro Day caused teams to question his work ethic and he subsequently fell out of the first round, ultimately being drafted by the Cardinals with the first selection in the second round. Winston Justice experienced a similar fate in 2006.
The list could go on from here, but the point is that there's still a number of things that could happen to Rivers in the eyes of NFL teams that could result in him slipping into the second round.
It is unlikely that Rivers will slip, but, if he does, he would certainly be the best athlete available to the Colts in the second stanza. While they have more glaring needs along the offensive and defensive lines, it would be hard to pass up this talented of a prospect.
After all, Ron Meeks and linebackers coach Mike Murphy have done far more with far less, especially considering that they would really only need to teach Rivers to play better in space. Given his speed and athleticism, that doesn't seem as though it would be too much of a challenge for the two coaches.
And, given the football instincts and hard-hitting mentality Rivers has, he could be a highly effective and productive player for a long time for Indianapolis.
All of that is provided, of course, that he falls into the second round. The ball is decidedly in Rivers' court and it seems highly unlikely that he would drop it.