Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s linebacker corps.
Name: Ja’Whaun Bentley
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
Jersey number: 51
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-2, 255 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
What is his experience? Bentley entered the draft in 2018 coming off a four-year career at Purdue. All in all, he appeared in 38 games for the Boilermakers and despite struggling with injuries during his sophomore and junior seasons put up some solid statistics — 272 tackles, three recovered and two fumbles, two interceptions and a sack. As a result of his productivity especially against the run, the Patriots decided to invest a draft selection in Bentley when they picked him 143rd overall in the fifth round.
Since then, he earned a job as a rotational-level off-the-ball linebacker who regularly saw the field during the first two years of his professional career. While Bentley’s rookie season came to a premature end due to a biceps injury suffered in September, he still played in a combined 20 games since arriving in New England. Along the way, he proved himself to be more than just a one-dimensional run-stuffer: he also received plenty of action against the pass and showed that he can successfully perform in this area as well.
What did his 2019 season look like? After spending the Patriots’ 2018 championship run on injured reserve, Bentley was back on the field for the team’s organized team activities a four months later. His presence during the spring practice sessions was a sign of things to come: the second-year man was fully healthy again and ready to build on the foundation he laid during his three-game rookie season. Bentley did just that, not only because he was able to appear in all 16 regular season contests and New England’s lone playoff game.
Playing 27.5% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps (294 of 1,070), Bentley effectively served as the team’s third option at off-the-ball linebacker behind Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins Sr. In this role, he was used not just as an early-down run defender — one that registered a combined 30 tackles in the ground game, including one for loss as well as five run-stuffs — but also in coverage: Bentley dropped back on a combined 127 of his defensive snaps and s saw passes thrown his way 18 times for a 14.2% target rate.
He did surrender catches on 15 of those targets, but limited the damage by giving up just 105 yards per reception without any touchdowns surrendered. Bentley may not have been outstanding in this area of the game, but he was certainly serviceable. The same can also be said about his pass rush. Overall, he attacked the pocket just 38 times — primarily as a second-level blitzer — but he was mildly successful: Bentley registered a quarterback hit as well as four additional hurries.
While the Purdue product did have a productive second year in the NFL, his time on the field did decrease a bit compared to his rookie season: Bentley played 63.6% and 54.1% of the Patriots’ snaps on defense and special teams before his season-ending injury in 2018. That said, he repeatedly proved his value to the operation in both phases in 2019. In the kicking game, for example, he played 141 of a possible 474 snaps (29.7%) and registered five tackles. All in all, he can therefore feel good about his first full season.
What is his projected role? Ever since joining the Patriots during the 2018 draft, Bentley’s role has been pretty straight forward: he is an off-the-ball linebacker. In Year Three, he is also projected to play this role in the heart of New England’s defense. That said, it could evolve a bit considering that the team lost three members of its linebacker corps — Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts — in free agency. In turn, Bentley’s playing time share might go up as well.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, the Patriots have regularly employed Bentley in the kicking game over his first two years with the club. While he did play on three units in 2018 — kick return, punt coverage, and field goal/extra point blocking — his 2019 usage was a bit more limited: he only played on kick return and punt coverage teams. That said, he performed well in this role and should be expected to fill it again this season.
Does he have positional versatility? While the Patriots did give him some snaps on the defensive line last year, Bentley’s primary alignment is off the ball as a traditional inside linebacker. As such, he plays on the second level of the defense on most of his snaps with responsibilities ranging from downhill run defense to pass rush and coverage. While his role forces him to be versatile, New England has only rarely used him outside of his comfort zone so far in his career.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the third year of the rookie pact he signed back in 2018, Bentley is currently on the Patriots’ books with a salary cap number of $825,988 — $75,988 of which in the form of his prorated signing bonus. Other than that, he carries no guarantees in his deal. Nevertheless, New England would free up only minimal resources in case it decided to release or trade the 23-year-old. From a financial perspective, keeping him on the roster makes the most sense.
What is his roster outlook? Bentley’s contract is not the only reason why he should be considered a safe bet to make the Patriots’ 53-man team this year: he also is the second most experienced off-the-ball linebacker on the team behind Dont’a Hightower, and as such expected to receive regular snaps on defense this year. Whether or not he will be up to the challenge remains to be seen — especially in the context of New England’s offseason acquisitions at the position — but he still faces a golden opportunity to increase his role in 2020.