Patriots DE Derek Rivers rounding into form after missing '17

Derek Rivers projects as the fourth defensive end, and the Patriots have had some of their best success when they employ a four-man rotation at that spot. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

Touching on some hot topics around the New England Patriots in mailbag form:

Brad, this is a timely question because one of the notes I had from practices this week was that Derek Rivers, the team's top 2017 draft pick (third round, No. 83 overall), looked like he was starting to show some consistent explosion in pass-rush drills. In initial practices, it looked to me like he was still getting his legs under him after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. But specifically, in recent practices, I watched him get around the edge in one-on-one drills against offensive tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Matt Tobin.

Rivers projects as the fourth defensive end, behind Trey Flowers, Adrian Clayborn and Deatrich Wise Jr., and the Patriots have had some of their best success when they employ a four-man rotation at that spot. In 2016, the combination of Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and Flowers was effective.

Also, as the most recent Super Bowl showed, having players who can win one-on-one matchups as pass-rushers to create some disruption is much needed. Rivers is in position to help in that area, but he knows he needs to do more than that.

"You have to play the run to play here," he said. "I'm working on my craft, all aspects of my game, to become a more all-around player."

After the signing of Eric Decker, I'd be surprised if the Patriots make another move for a receiver like Brandon LaFell, as they are pretty well stocked from a depth perspective. Specific to LaFell, it is also a good reminder of how things ended for him in New England; he had a productive 2014 season with the team, then things tailed off in 2015 (in part because of a foot injury), and the club released him entering the third and final year of his contract. In the event of a run of injuries to receivers on the current roster, maybe the Patriots would consider it more strongly, but based on how things ended here, I don't see them being aggressive right now on that possibility. As for Bryant, I view that as the type of situation in which the Patriots might like what the player does on the field but could have some reservations on all the other stuff that comes with him. So I see that as less likely to happen.

Kevin, there have been some different messages from defenders on what is changing under linebackers coach Brian Flores, with linebacker Dont'a Hightower noting a more aggressive approach. Hightower also pointed out that Flores' teaching style has helped some of the younger players -- and newcomers -- adapt to the system so they can play fast. But at the same time, safety Devin McCourty made the point that even though Flores is taking over, it's still the same system that the Patriots ran under Matt Patricia.

"He’s not going to be the same as Matty P, but our defense is kind of the same. Like, we don’t have a whole new defense, because Flo’s been in this system for years. It’s a lot of crossover," McCourty said.