Three weeks into the 2018 NFL season, the New England Patriots’ most exciting rookie wasn’t running back Sony Michel or cornerback J.C. Jackson.
It was linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley.
In the first few months of his Patriots career, Bentley had gone from a relatively unknown fifth-round draft pick to New England’s No. 1 middle linebacker, bumping out incumbent starter Elandon Roberts.
The 22-year-old Purdue product started two of the Patriots’ first three games, tallying 14 tackles and an interception after also returning a fumble for a touchdown during the preseason.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, that’s the only production Bentley would provide as a rookie. He suffered a torn biceps during the team’s Week 3 loss to the Detroit Lions, was placed on injured reserve a few days later and never returned.
But unlike many of New England’s other injured players, Bentley remained closely connected with the team throughout the season, traveling to road games and attending most practices. Assuming a return to full health this season, he’s poised to play a major role in a linebacking corps that also returns Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Roberts, John Simon and fellow IR’d rookie Christian Sam. Not to mention, the group now will be led by former Patriots great Jerod Mayo.
?He reminds me a little bit of a guy that I got drafted with here,? special teams captain Matthew Slater said one day after Bentley’s NFL debut last September. ?They wore the same number (No. 51), too. He?s a good kid. He?s really done a great job.
?He?s really been a leader. His buy-in has been tremendous. His play on the field has been tremendous. He?s a player that players in this locker room really trust and have a lot of confidence in, so hopefully he?ll continue to grow and improve like the rest of us. I?m looking forward to seeing what the future has in store for him.?
Being compared to Mayo — regarded as one of the best leaders of the Bill Belichick era — was incredibly high praise for a first-year player, especially one who entered the draft with little fanfare (and no invite to the NFL Scouting Combine) and had to wait until Day 3 to hear his name called.
?I just think he?s not afraid to be himself, to lead,? Slater said of Bentley. ?He?s a very intelligent player, and he?s going to hold guys accountable. The 51 that came in with me (Mayo), that?s what he did better than anyone I?ve ever been around. …
?It takes a special guy. It doesn?t happen very often, especially when you have a strong, established locker room. But there are those guys that come around every 10 years or so, and hopefully (Bentley) can be that for us.?
Slater wasn’t the only one Bentley impressed last season.
?He?s a really, really good rookie,? Van Noy said after Bentley landed on IR. “… He was doing really well picking up things, and we?ll be excited for him next year.?
Bentley posted the best Pro Football Focus grade of any Patriots defender in Week 1 and the third-best in Week 3. Belichick wasn’t surprised by his immediate emergence.
“I mean, he started as a freshman at Purdue,” the coach said in September. “This kid?s been productive at every program he?s been almost as soon as he?s been in the program, so I don?t see it as a big shock.?
It also wouldn’t be shocking if Bentley became a bona fide star in his second NFL season.