FOXBORO, Mass. — One of the most impressive members of the New England Patriots’ 2018 draft class spent just three short weeks on the active roster last season.
Now, he’s back on the field and ready to fight for the starting spot he so quickly earned as a rookie.
“It’s always good to get back out there and be with your guys,” linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley said Thursday after the Patriots’ first training camp practice. “… We’re just looking at each day to take the next step.”
Bentley was one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 preseason, emerging from relative obscurity as an unheralded fifth-round draft pick to begin the year as the New England’s starting middle linebacker. Playing between veterans Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, the Purdue product was on the field for 63 percent of defensive snaps over the Patriots’ first three games, tallying 14 tackles and an interception before suffering a biceps tear that ended his season.
The setback didn’t keep Bentley away from the team for long, though. Unlike most injured players, he traveled to road games throughout the season and attended most practices — measures the coaching staff used to keep their promising young ‘backer as involved in as possible.
“I feel like one of the big ways of learning is observing, whether it’s watching film or watching how guys do things,” Bentley said. “I’m really blessed to have a lot of guys who’ve been playing for many years to learn from those guys — soaking things up, learning different techniques. It’s just good to have the kind of guys we have on this team. …
“Obviously, you want to be out there with your guys, so you just find a new role on the team, whether it’s being a good observer — just being ready, period, no matter what the situation may be. You’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
Hightower and Van Noy both spoke highly of Bentley, who earned plaudits for his professionalism and leadership last season.
“He’s the same guy,” Hightower said after Thursday’s practice. “Still a sponge, hard-working. (He’s) one of the main guys. … Bentley’s definitely one of the guys who loves to watch film and is always doing extra stuff, so I think he’s doing exactly what he did last year.”
“(We expect him to) step in and play,” Van Noy added. “The expectations are high for each player out here, and we expect the same thing from him (as) where he left off.”
Bentley recovered in time for spring practice and was a full participant in organized team activities and minicamp. In the coming weeks, he’ll compete for playing time with Elandon Roberts — who lost his spot in New England’s base defense last season before regaining it once Bentley went down — as well as Hightower, Van Noy and the returning Jamie Collins.
Christian Sam, Calvin Munson, Shilique Calhoun and undrafted rookie Terez Hall also are in the mix at linebacker.
“Everybody on the team, you’re looking for a role,” Bentley said. “So yeah, there’s competition, obviously. But we’re looking to come out here and just compete every day, be the best you can, find your role on the team and do it well at the end of the day.”
Bentley repeated that simple mantra — find your role and do it well — several times during his post-practice media scrum. After watching the bulk of the Patriots’ latest Super Bowl run from the sideline, he sounds ready for the challenge.
“In everything you do, I feel like you’ve got to have some type of confidence — some type of swagger about yourself,” he said. “But everybody has a role to play. I’m just looking to find mine and do it well.”