How Patriots could fill void left by Derek Rivers' injury

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots fear that rookie Derek Rivers' knee injury could be season-ending -- which sparks an obvious follow-up question: Where does the team go from here?

A defensive end out of Youngstown State, Rivers was drafted in the third round (No. 83 overall). He was the Patriots' top pick because they were without first- and second-round picks in the 2017 draft.

Defensive end was arguably the team’s thinnest position before Rivers’ significant left knee injury. He projected to be part of a rotation at the position -- where his primary asset as a high-motor pass-rusher could be tapped -- while also chipping in on special teams.

As coach Bill Belichick often says, there are many avenues for adding players to a team, and here are some possibilities that jump to the forefront with this situation:

A potential Rob Ninkovich return -- Part of the reason the Patriots are thin at the position is that Ninkovich, the respected veteran, retired at the outset of training camp. Sometimes a player’s body can feel refreshed after not going through training camp. Would the Patriots consider enticing Ninkovich out of retirement? Would Ninkovich consider it? Ninkovich has remained around the team since his retirement.

Light free-agent market -- There aren’t many options in unrestricted free agency. When Ninkovich initially retired, the possibility of Dwight Freeney was highlighted. Perhaps the Patriots would consider him after seeing him in Super Bowl LI, when he looked 27 instead of 37. Veterans Paul Kruger and Mario Williams are other well-known names on the market.

In-house possibilities -- The Patriots’ defensive scheme is multiple, so when considering in-house options, some linebackers could pick up some of the slack. Captain Dont'a Hightower (6-foot-3, 265), six-year veteran Shea McClellin (6-3, 250), fourth-year player Kyle Van Noy (6-3, 243) and undrafted rookie Harvey Langi (6-2, 252) have the combination of power and athleticism to potentially see time on the edge, depending on the scheme. Heavier defensive linemen such as veteran free-agent signing Lawrence Guy (6-4, 305) and undrafted rookie Adam Butler (6-5, 300) are less likely to play a Rivers-like role at end.

Trade market -- The Patriots have been one of the NFL’s most active teams on the trade market under Belichick, swinging in-season deals that have brought key contributors aboard, such as defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas. Pro personnel director Dave Ziegler is likely exploring options around the league to see what might be available.