This ‘Underrated’ Patriots Captain Quietly Having Career Season

'He's one of the best 'backers in the league'


Dec 28, 2022

During the leadup to the Patriots’ Week 15 matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders, linebackers coach Jerod Mayo gave an unprompted shoutout to the leader of New England’s front seven.

Not Matthew Judon, the Patriots’ Pro Bowl pass rusher and defensive MVP.

Ja’Whaun Bentley, the rugged inside linebacker and team co-captain who, with little fanfare or media attention, is putting together the best season of his five-year NFL career.

“Bentley is probably one of the most underrated linebackers in the league,” Mayo said. “I’m not sure why he doesn’t get much publicity, but he’s one of the best ‘backers in the league.”

Patriots fans might balk at that review. Bentley has been a solid Patriots contributor for years, sure. But one of the best linebackers in the NFL? Really?

Yes, really. At least according to the evaluators at Pro Football Focus. Bentley enters Week 17 as PFF’s eighth-highest-graded linebacker. His run defense grade ranks 10th among qualified ‘backers. His coverage grade ranks 17th.

As a throwback thumper who doesn’t possess sideline-to-sideline athleticism or elite pass-rushing ability, Bentley’s playing style doesn’t produce many eyeball-emoji-inducing highlights. But his play of late has been impossible to ignore.

The 26-year-old has registered double-digit tackles in each of the Patriots’ last three games, the first time he’s done so in consecutive weeks in his pro career. Against the Raiders, he also had a sack and four pressures, per PFF, tying his career high. In last week’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Bentley had a season-high 12 tackles and a pass breakup in the end zone, blanketing running back Joe Mixon to force a field-goal try.

Bentley rarely leaves the field for the Patriots’ defense, and against Cincinnati, he didn’t at all, playing 100% of defensive snaps for just the second time in his career.

“He definitely impacts the game,” linebackers coach and defensive play-caller Steve Belichick said Tuesday in a video conference. “He makes it hard to take him off the field. I think he played every snap this past week, and he’s just such a key part to our defense. His ability to kind of tie in the front and the back end, he does such a good job with that.

“He’s so smart. He puts in a ton of time to know what everybody’s doing. He’s very proactive in figuring out how things are going to look, not just in his eyes but everybody else on the field. I think that that helps him … play a little bit faster based on what the guys around him are doing, and he has total command of the defense.”

Bentley’s teammates have taken notice, too.

Special teams ace Matthew Slater, who compared Bentley to Mayo during the linebacker’s rookie year in 2018, lit up Tuesday when asked about his fellow co-captain.

“He’s just shown a great deal of consistency, a great deal of improvement, and he’s really become a pillar for this organization in terms of what he does on and off the football field,” Slater said. “And certainly this year, if you talk to anyone around here, his play has really popped off. We’ve seen it. It’s been consistent week after week.

“He’s really taken ownership of that defense in a very unique way, and he’s playing at a very high level. I don’t think we sit where we sit today with a chance to look at playing in the postseason without him performing the way that he has.”

Judon, who ranks second in the NFL in sacks with 15 1/2, said Bentley has “been balling” and “put together some really good games” in recent weeks. He, like Mayo, believes Bentley and the rest of the Patriots’ linebacking corps deserve more credit and recognition than they’ve received.

Versatile ‘backer Jahlani Tavai has been another quiet standout, grading out as PFF’s 18th-best player at his position and 11th-best in coverage. The Patriots rewarded Tavai with a two-year, $4.4 million contract extension last month. The two-year, $6 million deal Bentley signed last offseason has looked like a bargain.

“For the whole year, they’ve been very consistent,” Judon said last week. “They’ve been very good. They just don’t get talked about how they should, and they don’t care. I think that’s one good thing about our linebacker group — they just don’t care. They just come back to work and they continue to play. I give my hats off to them. A lot of respect.

“It’s hard playing this game at a high level and you don’t ever hear nobody say your name, you don’t hear nobody give you the credit you deserve, and then for you to just stay consistent all year. And I think everybody in that linebacker group does it.”

Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images
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