Hidden Patriots: New England Seemingly Has High Hopes For Rookie Linebacker


New England Patriots rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley was lost for the 2018 season after just three games, but he didn’t miss a road trip.

Bentley reportedly tore his biceps in Week 3 and was placed on injured reserve three days later. The 2018 fifth-round pick started two of his first three NFL games and contributed with 14 tackles, an interception, a quarterback hit and two hurries before hitting IR.

The Patriots continued to have Bentley travel with the team all season, however.

He was primed for a significant role before suffering the injury and likely will re-earn that spot in 2019 and beyond as long as he stays healthy. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Christian Sam and Brandon King all are under contract next season. At the very least, Bentley likely will take over Roberts’ early-down role at middle linebacker in the Patriots’ defense.

Depending on how the offseason shakes out for the Patriots, Bentley and Roberts also could share the field as starters. Defensive end Trey Flowers is a free agent. If he can’t be re-signed, then Hightower and/or Van Noy could be asked to take on greater pass-rush duties next season.

There’s also the matter of Hightower’s contract. He has a cap hit of nearly $11 million in 2019. He likely will return — and we support that initiative — but if the Patriots like Bentley enough, they could view Hightower as expendable for the price. The Patriots and Hightower also could work out a restructured contract.

Bentley was a bit of an unknown commodity coming out of Purdue. He wasn’t even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, and he didn’t stand out at his pro day, running a 4.75-second 40-yard dash with a 1.66-second 10-yard split, 7.12-second 3-cone drill, 4.40-second short shuttle, 29.5-inch vertical leap, 9-foot-, 3-inch broad jump and 31 bench-press reps of 225 pounds.

But the Patriots like big linebackers, and at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, Bentley was athletic enough for their defense.

Pro Football Focus loved him for good reason. He registered 46 defensive stops in 346 run snaps, ranking third among draft-eligible players in run stop rate, in 2017. He also missed just nine tackles his entire senior season. He had nine total pressures in 72 pass-rush snaps. He let up just 17 catches on 26 targets for 195 yards with no touchdowns and one interception, though he did come off the field at times in obvious passing situations.

PFF gave him a 95 run defense grade and 91.2 overall grade in 2017.

Bentley initially projected as a first- and second-down run-stuffer in the NFL, but he was so good in training camp, preseason and the first three weeks of the regular season, those expectations expanded. He now has the ceiling of a three-down player, though he might have to take on a reduced role until he can rise on the Patriots’ linebacker depth chart.

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