Keith Rivers departed the New York Giants for greener pastures with the Buffalo Bills this past March as a free agent, with very little fanfare on either side of the equation. Little did we know that, thanks to a season-ending injury to Kiko Alonso in late June, Rivers would become a player of vital importance to Buffalo's new defense under Jim Schwartz.
Entering his first season with the Bills on a two-year, $4.05 million contract, Rivers is now a top candidate to replace Alonso as the every-down presence (or close to it) in Buffalo's linebacking corps. That is a stark change from where he was a year ago with the Giants, where three of his now-former teammates logged more snaps than he did.
"Rivers started on the strong side in 2013," says Ed Valentine, a long-time colleague of mine at Big Blue View, which covers the Giants. "He came off the field when the Giants were in nickel, dime or their three-safety look. The Giants love Jacquian Williams' pass-coverage ability, so Rivers - pretty decent in coverage - came off the field."
That probably won't be the case for Rivers in Buffalo. The loss of Alonso, who played every defensive snap for the Bills as a rookie, was a crushing blow, and there is no obvious replacement for that role.
Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, for as good as he is defending the run, is equally weak in the passing game. He's likely to be part of the base and short-yardage defenses only. Rivers headlines a group of younger players - including third-year pro Nigel Bradham, rookie third-round pick Preston Brown, veteran special teams player Stevenson Sylvester, and a pair of little-known rookies in Randell Johnson and Jimmy Gaines - vying for playing time. Somebody has to step into a large role, and so far, Rivers has been the only mainstay with the first-team defense.
"Rivers, truthfully is 'just a guy,'" Valentine believes. "He was healthy all season last year for a change and played okay, but was hardly irreplaceable. The Giants didn't make a real effort to keep him in free agency."
With so much left to chance by playing unproven, young players, it is Rivers' well-rounded, if unspectacular, game that makes him the early clubhouse leader for a huge role in the Jim Schwartz defense.
"He can cover well enough. He can play the run well enough," says Valentine. "Thing is, he's just sort of 'there.' He won't make many impact plays or be a dynamic guy. He also isn't really a leader or locker room voice. Rivers will do a decent job for Buffalo if he stays healthy. That's what he is - a decent player."
Bills fans will undoubtedly focus more on players like Bradham and Brown when the Bills and the Giants square off on Sunday night, but it's the not-buzzworthy Rivers that should, and will likely get the first crack at replacing Alonso. That might happen tonight, when Rivers and the Bills make their 2014 season debuts in the Hall of Fame Game against the Giants.