With Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins both exiting this spring, the time is now for Ja’Whaun Bentley to become the next great New England Patriots linebacker.
The New England Patriots have a long, proud history when it comes to their linebackers.
Tedy Bruschi, Andre Tippett, Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson, Junior Seau, Steve Nelson, Mike Vrabel … the list could go on and on and on.
More recently, players like Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, and Kyle Van Noy have breathed new life into the tradition for this team during the 2010s.
Unfortunately, all of those guys are now gone — either retired altogether or playing on new teams in 2020. Only Dont’a Hightower remains.
That means that someone’s going to have to step up in the void. Hightower needs at least one running mate — ideally two — to help him manage and master the center of the New England defense.
Last year, the “Three Musketeers” of Hightower, Collins, and Van Noy were easily the most dominant and effective linebacker trio in the league.
The Patriots certainly have some talented players who could reinforce Hightower in this area — but most of them are similar guys to Ninkovich and McGinest.
By that, I mean they’re more hybrid players who can play outside linebacker as well as defensive end, as opposed to being true linebackers. Namely, I’m referring to Chase Winovich, John Simon, and Deatrich Wise Jr.
Ja’Whaun Bentley, on the other hand, is more of a traditional linebacker in the mold of Bruschi, Mayo, and Seau.
Bentley is a former fifth-round draft pick out of Purdue who was selected by the Patriots back in 2018. He’s still just 23 years old and he only has 19 games of regular season experience under his belt — three as a rookie and all 16 games last year — but Bill Belichick and the New England coaching staff are high on Bentley’s long-term potential.
A lot can change between now and the season opener, of course, but as of this writing, Bentley is atop the depth chart as the No. 1 option at left inside linebacker alongside Hightower.
He’ll need to fend off a slew of competitors to maintain his inside track at being the Day 1 starter in September, but he certainly has the talent and the intelligence to do so if he continues his current trajectory.
Best-case scenario projection for 2020
The best-case scenario for Bentley in 2020 is he takes the next step and becomes a full-time starter on this Patriots defense. He made a massive jump in playing time between his first and second NFL seasons, increasing his overall workload by 13 games last year.
Still, his snaps were limited throughout all 16 of those games in 2019. Ideally, that won’t be the case in 2020.
Bentley was 11th on the team in total tackles last season. Hightower, for comparison, was second.
We should hope that Bentley soars up that metric in 2020. There’s no reason to think he can’t finish top-three — or top-five at minimum — in tackles this season if he’s starting alongside Hightower.
It would also be nice to see Bentley rack up some more high-impact/swing-play stats: the kind that usually accompany sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, and defensive touchdowns.
Bentley serving as a capable No. 2 to Hightower and becoming a breakout star in his third NFL season is certainly his best-case scenario projection.
Worst-case scenario projection for 2020
Should Bentley fail to make an impact this year, it could all but doom his chances as a regular NFL contributor — at least on the Patriots.
The strength of this New England team in 2020 is widely (and correctly) viewed to be its defense. Belichick and the Patriots can ill afford any weak links on what is supposed to be one of the best defensive units from top-to-bottom in the league.
If Bentley is outplayed by someone like Anfernee Jennings or Brandon Copeland, his stock in New England might never recover. Fifth-round draft picks generally don’t generate a lot of interest from other teams, so it’s up to Bentley to prove he’s better than where he was drafted two years ago.