Rookie Rivers should fill immediate Bengals' needs

CINCINNATI -- Keith Rivers knows the pressure is on, and despite the whirlwind surrounding him that has been the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason, the rookie linebacker is having no problem staying focused.

Rivers is aware that a pair of talented former teammates -- Chris Henry and Odell Thurman -- were kicked off the team in back-to-back months.

He is conscious of Cincinnati's poor defensive track record, and that Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson has gone AWOL.

Yet Rivers remains the brightest light coming from the Queen City this spring. The rookie is doing and saying all the right things, at a time when others before him in Cincinnati did not.

Whether it's fair to Rivers is not the issue.

These are the cards Rivers were dealt as the ninth overall pick. He comes to an organization in desperate need of his skills on the field, high character off the field and status as one of the most prepared players to come out of this year's NFL draft.

"At the end of the day, those things have nothing to do with me," Rivers said of the Cincinnati's tumultuous offseason. "The only thing I need to do right now is focus on myself, learn my plays and get better.

"I hope everything works out in a great way (for Johnson), but that's not my concern. I want to be seen, not heard, and make plays."

Focus is one of Rivers' greatest assets. He graduated from the University of Southern California earlier this month with a degree in public policy development. He steers clear of trouble and is passionate about his craft of playing linebacker.

In just three weeks of organized team activities, Bengals coaches already are falling in love with Rivers' innate ability to read and react.

With the increased speed of the game, processing information quickly is one of the biggest struggles rookie linebackers have when coming to the NFL. But Rivers is living up to his lofty billing.

"This man sees the picture clearly," Bengals linebacker coach Jeff FitzGerald said. "When he sees things happen in front of him, things are clicking. He sees it and it makes sense to him. It's not just a guy running around hoping that he was right."

After failed attempts by former assistants Leslie Frazier and Chuck Bresnahan, Cincinnati will be on its third defensive coordinator under head coach Marvin Lewis. New defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will try to improve the Bengals defense in 2008 as Cincinnati has never ranked higher than No. 19 in total defense during Lewis' five-year tenure.

Zimmer is in the process of installing a base 4-3 scheme that eventually will include some 3-4 looks. The defense could have at least three new starters next season in Rivers, linebacker Ahmad Brooks and defensive end Antwan Odom, Cincinnati's major free-agent acquisition from the Tennessee Titans.

Rivers' path to Cincinnati was straightforward.

The Bengals had their eye on two USC defensive players during the scouting process in Rivers and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.

The New Orleans Saints, who originally had the No. 10 pick, reportedly wanted to trade up to get defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, but couldn't. So New Orleans traded with the New England Patriots to snag Ellis with the seventh overall selection, and the Bengals took Rivers two picks later.

Cincinnati now has 11 linebackers on its roster, which was one of the reasons Thurman became expendable. There is an open competition for all three starting jobs this season, but currently nine-year veteran Dhani Jones is the favorite to start at middle linebacker, along with Rivers and Brooks as the leading candidates for the two outside-linebacker spots.

While quarterback Carson Palmer is the face of Cincinnati's offense, the defense remains faceless and without an identity. Rivers has the talent and potential to fill that void, but it's rare that a rookie on defense has to shoulder that kind of responsibility.

"He's got leadership ability, there's absolutely no question in my mind," FitzGerald said. "However, he has to feel comfortable about when and how he leads, and I have to understand that. I can jump all over him now, but that's not fair for me to do."

Lewis recently passed out orange T-shirts to all of his players that read "NOW" on the back in bright, white letters. Lewis' message is that Cincinnati needs to win this season -- with no excuses and no looking ahead to future seasons.

The motto also rings true for Rivers, who likely will need to play above and beyond his experience level for the Bengals to be successful.

James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com.