FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots annually make a selection in the NFL draft that sends even the most prepared analysts scrambling.
They pack didn’t come until the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft when they chose linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley out of Purdue, who wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine and was projected as an undrafted free agent. He was considered an old-school linebacker who could thump in the run game but might not contribute much on passing downs.
Well, he made a strong first impression Thursday night in the Patriots’ 2018 preseason opener. Bentley had six tackles, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit in the Patriots’ 26-17 win over the Washington Redskins. He should have had a forced fumble, but officials ruled a run play dead due to forward progress right before Bentley popped the ball out of Washington running back Samaje Perine’s hands. The Patriot recovered the ball, but the officials wouldn’t let head coach Bill Belichick challenge the play.
Bentley also was targeted twice in coverage and let up just two catches for 10 yards.
“I just wanted to come out and put my best foot forward to do the best I could as far as assignments and just make sure all my guys were ready to go,” Bentley said. “And I feel like we did a good job of that. Of course, we got some kinks to work out, but we did a very good job, I feel.”
Bentley also spent some time as the defensive signal-caller. The role wasn’t too big for him.
“As the Mike linebacker, you have to get used to making the calls, period,” Bentley said. “Nothing I was new to, in terms of making the calls. It wasn’t anything new. But it was a great opportunity.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick obviously felt the rookie was ready for the responsibility. Belichick did note that multiple players took on those duties Thursday night, including Bentley and fellow rookie linebacker Christian Sam.
“Ja’Whaun’s a smart kid, so mental’s never been an issue for him,” Belichick said.
As a fifth-round pick, Bentley is likely to make the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster, but he’s no sure thing. The Patriots have an uneven but deep group of linebackers that includes entrenched starters Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy and players fighting for roles like Bentley, Sam, Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers, Nicholas Grigsby and Harvey Langi.
Bentley certainly helped his standing on the roster Thursday night. Van Noy allowed a touchdown in coverage, Roberts was flagged for illegal contact and Langi reportedly will miss a month with an injury. Meanwhile, Bentley was one of the Patriots’ most productive players.
He’s taking it all in stride.
“It’s definitely exciting to get an opportunity to play the game that I work so hard to play with a group of guys I’m excited to play with,” Bentley said.
Thumbnail photo via Paul Rutherford/USA TODAY Sports Images