Cincinnati wasn’t on Keith Rivers’ mind when Draft Day began but the USC linebacker certainly wasn’t complaining when he got the phone call from Marvin Lewis Saturday afternoon.
The Bengals made Rivers their first pick of the 2008 NFL Draft with the No. 9 overall choice, adding him to a mix of linebackers that has been decimated in recent seasons by injury and league suspension. Rivers started the past three seasons at weakside linebacker for the Trojans after playing in 13 games as a true freshman in 2004. He was a first-team All-American selection as a senior after finishing with 78 tackles, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries and four pass breakups.
“I put the hat on and it felt great. It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had and I’m just really excited,” said Rivers on a conference call with media shortly after his selection. “I’ll play wherever they want me to play and do whatever they ask me to do.”
The Bengals lost Landon Johnson, the team’s leading tackler in three of the past four seasons, to Carolina as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Nine different players started at linebacker for Cincinnati last season.
Dhani Jones, who signed to a three-year deal this offseason, started the final eight games of last season on the weakside and finished second on the team with 111 tackles. Ahmad Brooks and Rashad Jeanty are on top of the offseason depth chart at middle and strongside linebacker, respectively. Brooks played in just two games last season after suffering a groin injury at Cleveland while covering a kickoff.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell re-instated Odell Thurman this month after serving a two-year suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
“Cincinnati is going to be very happy for the next 15 years with Keith starring for them,” wrote USC linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., in the comment section of Rivers’ blog on the Web site YardBarkers.com. “He is everything you want in a linebacker. He's the prototype. He's fast, he's tough, he's strong, he's got great athletic ability, (and) he works hard. We nicknamed him “The Shark” for a reason: he devours ball carriers.”
While New Orleans and Jacksonville made trades to move into the two spots immediately in front of the Bengals to select defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (Saints) and defensive end Derrick Harvey (Jaguars), the Bengals held their position. Pre-draft speculation and several mock drafts had the Bengals picking Ellis. The Saints and Patriots switched first-round positions (New Orleans was No. 10). New Orleans also gave up its third-round pick (No. 78 overall) while receiving a fifth-round pick from New England.
The Bengals have two picks in the third round, including No. 77.
Lewis said that Jacksonville called seeking to move into the No. 9 spot but that the Bengals did not want to move all the way back to No. 26. He did not elaborate as to whether the team attempted to trade up.
“It seemed to happen all together,” said Lewis. “It wasn’t like we had a big difference in how we had the guys ranked. When we got to that point there were four players left that fit us pretty well. They were all defensive players and all guys we would have liked to have taken. We couldn’t move back.”
Rivers had some pre-draft talks with the Bengals but the team did not bring him in for a visit. That’s why he wasn’t thinking about the Bengals at the start of the draft.
“I thought Sedrick Ellis,” said Rivers. “We thought maybe they might go with a lineman – an offensive lineman or something like that – but I don’t know. I definitely thought they might go with Sedrick Ellis but he got picked when the Saints traded up.”
Rivers is the third player from USC the Bengals have taken in the first round of the draft in the team’s history. They fared well with the previous two; Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz was picked with the third overall choice in 1980 while quarterback Carson Palmer was taken No. 1 overall in 2003.
Palmer called Rivers shortly after Lewis did.
“He told me it was an excellent city and a great organization and that I was just what they need,” said Rivers. “He said they’ve got all of the offense and now they need a little help on defense.”