Third-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is among those New England Patriots players who will be most needed to step up in 2020.
No time but the present.
That should be the personal mantra this season for Ja’Whaun Bentley, the 2018 fifth-round draft pick out of Purdue.
Bentley came on extremely strong his rookie season, earning a starting position alongside Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy after an impressive first summer with the New England Patriots. A torn bicep landed him on injured reserve at the end of September, however, and he was forced to miss the rest of his inaugural NFL year.
In his second season with the team, he saw his place in the pecking order of the Patriots’ linebackers fall a bit due to the return of Jamie Collins. His numbers were good if not great as the fourth option on the team. Playing in all 16 regular season games, he logged 44 tackles and one pass defense.
It’s a different story already though heading into 2020. Van Noy is with the Dolphins and Collins is with the Lions now. Only Hightower remains at the top of the New England linebacker depth chart.
The other names on the roster at the position? Brandon Copeland, Tashawn Bower, Brandon King, Shilique Calhoun, and Terez Hall. Altogether, it’s a rather uninspiring list.
Granted, the Patriots are notorious for employing versatile players on their defense who can sub in at multiple positions. John Simon, Chase Winovich, and Derek Rivers are just a few of the guys listed as defensive ends who also have experience dropping back into coverage or roaming the middle of a defense if needed.
Still though, the time is now for Bentley to make his mark. He needs to show that he’s still every bit as impressive of a player as he looked during limited action in his first season. With no Van Noy or Collins ahead of him on the depth chart — and no Elandon Roberts battling him for reps from the wings — the opportunity to be Hightower’s wingman is there for the taking.
Besides, Hightower himself is starting to get up there a bit — at least in terms of football years. The former Alabama ‘backer just turned 30 last month, the same age as Collins. Van Noy isn’t far behind either of them either at 29.
Bentley, on the other hand, is still just 23. The sky’s the limit for the youngster, but he’ll need to make his mark fast.
Between Collins and Van Noy in 2019, the Patriots are losing a total of 137 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 10 passes defended, six forced fumbles, three fumble returns, three interceptions, and one defensive touchdown.
That’s a whole lot of production going out the window to South Beach and the Motor City.
Hightower didn’t have nearly the season last year that either Van Noy or Collins did, either. He did record 71 tackles (second-most on the team behind Collins), but he only had 5.5 sacks (the same number as the rookie Winovich who played fewer snaps), four passes defended, zero forced fumbles, zero interceptions, and zero defensive touchdowns. He did, however, recover a fumble.
This is not meant to disparage Hightower in any way. His impact on the defense goes well beyond raw stats — he’s the guy relaying all the defensive signals before every snap, and his performance and prowess in the postseason is the stuff of legend already.
But he’s definitely also a player who may be past his prime. He’s played a full 16-game season just once (all the way back in 2013), though to his credit he’s also played in at least 12 games in seven of his eight years as a pro.
Moral of the story? He’s not getting any younger, and there’s suddenly a major void at linebacker for the Patriots in 2020 — a position that was a true strength of the 2019 squad.
It’s up to Bentley to step up to the plate now and assert himself as the Robin to Hightower’s Batman. If all goes according to plan, the two players will form a formidable one-two punch in the center of the Patriots defense this season as Bentley absorbs Hightower’s leadership style and qualities.
Maybe in a couple seasons from now, Bentley will be ready to take over for Hightower, too, just as Hightower was groomed behind Jerod Mayo before eventually supplanting him, and as Mayo did with Tedy Bruschi before him.
The Patriots have a long and proud tradition amongst their linebackers. Hopefully, Bentley seizes the opportunity to carry on that tradition — this New England team quite frankly needs him to do just that.