With the possible exception of Jarrett Stidham, no New England Patriots player acquired more responsibility this offseason than Ja’Whaun Bentley.
A year ago, Bentley was a promising but seldom-used second-year linebacker struggling to find snaps behind standouts Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins in a position group that also featured veterans Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts.
Now, with Collins, Van Noy and Roberts long gone in free agency and Hightower choosing to opt out of this season due to COVID-19 concerns, Bentley suddenly is the man in the middle for New England. He’ll be tasked with steering a new-look Patriots front seven one year after playing just 27.2 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Collins and Hightower, the team’s primary inside linebackers in 2019, played 80.6 percent and 71.7 percent, respectively.
How Bentley handles his likely promotion will go a long way toward determining whether New England’s defense can maintain its status as one of the NFL’s elite.
“This wouldn?t be the first time I wore the green dot,” Bentley said Wednesday in a video conference, referring to the sticker that marks the on-field play-caller — Hightower’s usual job. “Obviously, that?s the head communicator. That?s the one who relays the calls to everybody. So if that?s the role that I have to take on — which is highly likely — we have to be able to adjust to that. Everybody has a role to play, and if that?s what mine will be, then I have to do that and try my best to do that very well.”
Though he still has two years remaining on his rookie contract, Bentley enters the 2020 season as one of the Patriots’ longest-tenured linebackers. He and edge rusher John Simon, who joined the Patriots early in the 2018 season, will be the veteran voices in a linebacker room that currently features four rookies (Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Cassh Maluia and Scoota Harris) and a potential sophomore starter in edge rusher Chase Winovich.
Former New York Jet Brandon Copeland also brings experience and could start alongside Bentley.
“We have a lot of great talent,” Bentley said. “Shoutout to Jamie and High, all those guys. Obviously, you respect the decision that Hightower made. You have no choice but to do that. But nonetheless, we?ve got to come in here and try to work. We?ve got to work. Guys have got to figure out their roles, and we?ve got to keep pushing forward.”
Asked whether he feels a responsibility to take on a leadership role given the youth around him, Bentley replied: “I?ve been here, and we have a lot of new guys, so you have to step in whatever role fits you best.”
“I?m a big advocate for not forcing a leadership role,” he added. “Leadership finds you. It finds you, and you react. You react with that. You never force the leadership position. You let it happen. I?m a big fan of that.”
Leadership seems to come naturally for the 23-year-old, though. He was a three-year captain at Purdue — a rarity in college football — and was being compared to Patriots star-turned-coach Jerod Mayo just one game into his NFL career.
“He reminds me a little bit of a guy that I got drafted with here,? special teams captain Matthew Slater said after Bentley started and played 51 defensive snaps in the Patriots’ 2018 season opener. “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.”
Mayo is widely regarded as one of the best leaders of the Bill Belichick era, so that’s no faint praise.
Bentley has yet to realize the potential he showed early in his rookie year, which ended after three games due to a torn biceps. He was viewed as a strong starting candidate last spring before Collins returned to Foxboro and subsequently revitalized his career, playing Defensive Player of the Year-caliber for the first half of the Patriots’ schedule.
That resurgence from the former Patriots standout shoved Bentley to the bottom of the depth chart. The 2018 fifth-round draft pick appeared in every game but played more than 40 percent of defensive snaps in just three of them, two of which were blowouts.
To prepare for his expanded role, Bentley said he’ll continue to seek advice from Hightower while the latter sits out and will take cues from other Patriots veterans, as well.
?We?re always talking,” Bentley said. “(Hightower) definitely on my list of people to talk to, whether it be about leadership or anything. Along with him, we?ve got a lot of great vets that I?ve been surrounded with over my past two years since I?ve been with New England, so you?re always picking those guys? brains, seeing different things that you can bring to your game.
“That?s been my approach since Day 1, whether that be college or the NFL, just picking guys? brains and seeing what I could steal, so to speak, to bring to my game and elevate it.”