Jerod Mayo was honest when asked about the rash of player opt-outs the New England Patriots experienced in recent weeks.
He didn’t anticipate the Patriots would lose eight players before training camp began, including two defensive cornerstones in linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung. And at first, he wasn’t happy about it.
But it didn’t take him long to understand.
“Initially, I was shocked, disappointed,” the Patriots inside linebackers coach said Friday in a video conference with reporters. “I can’t — a bunch of emotions went through my head. And then I stopped and obviously looked at each situation. These are personal decisions.
“Obviously, Hightower kind of took step back and just with family and his personal situation, and so did Chung. I certainly respect it.”
Mayo isn’t too far removed from his own playing days. He was teammates with both Hightower and Chung for several seasons before retiring in 2016 and eventually joining the Patriots’ coaching staff last offseason.
According to Mayo, Hightower and Chung will continue to mentor some of New England’s younger players while they sit this season out due to COVID-19 concerns.
“Hightower is one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around, and so is Chung,” Mayo said. “So those guys aren’t here with us this year, but they’re still around.”
From an on-field perspective, both players need replacing. The loss of Hightower is especially significant, as he’s been the primary signal-caller in a linebacking corps that already lost veterans Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts in free agency.
Third-year pro Ja’Whaun Bentley, who was buried behind Hightower and Collins last season, will be asked to fill that void, both as the defensive communicator and as a leader to New England’s legion of young linebackers. Mayo has high hopes for the former Purdue captain.
“I will say if you were to look at last year and look at his production per play, he was very productive when he was out there,” Mayo said of Bentley, who played just 27 percent of defensive snaps in 2019. “And when you think about the players we had in that room, it was a crowded room. But when he did get an opportunity, for the most part, he performed well. So I look forward to giving him more opportunities, and hopefully he stays healthy and he’s able to keep that production up.”
Listed at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, Bentley impressed early in his rookie season — even earning a Mayo comparison — before landing on injured reserve. Mayo believes he has all the tools to excel in a starting role.
“Physically, he’s bigger than some of those guys last year,” Mayo said. “He’s faster than some of those guys last year. It’s more now (about) making the game slow down for him, getting more reps in practice. That’s why this time right now is so important. But physically, this guy is gifted. He’s a big, fast, strong linebacker, and he’s a smart guy, as well.
“I’m excited. I’m excited to give him an opportunity to be out there for a while.”