Even though Ja’Whaun Bentley is only entering his third season in the NFL, he is among the most experienced linebackers on the New England Patriots’ roster. A fifth-round draft pick back in 2018, he has appeared in a combined 20 games over the last two years and carved out a valuable role as an off-the-ball defender — one that had the benefit of beginning his career as a pro under the watchful eyes of veteran leaders such as Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts.
While Hightower is still with the Patriots and the elder statesman of the team’s defensive front seven, the other three all left New England in unrestricted free agency this year. As a result, Bentley is now the second most experienced off-the-ball linebacker on the team behind only Hightower. The 23-year-old therefore will have to take the next step in his development and help fill the void created by Van Noy, Collins and Roberts leaving — not just on the field but off it as well.
“I definitely think that being in a position where you are in — you have played for a few years and you do have knowledge — I feel like the best benefit will be to share that knowledge,” Bentley said during a media conference call earlier this week. “It’s not good to have knowledge if you don’t want to share it with anybody. Me not being too far removed from those [rookie] experiences, I think I will have a lot to offer.
“We have rookies that aren’t afraid to ask questions. That’s a big thing, not being afraid to ask questions and not being intimidated by the atmosphere,” he added. “We also as older people want to create a safe space in which they feel comfortable asking those questions. We’re going to need them down the line, so of course we want to create that space and allow them the opportunity to ask any questions they have and be able to help them along the way, just like I was.”
Bentley embracing his role as a mentor for the younger players on New England’s roster could pay dividends for a linebacker corps that replaced experience with youth this offseason. The Patriots added Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings in the second and third rounds of this year’s draft, respectively, picked Cassh Maluia in the sixth, and later signed three more linebackers — edge option Nick Coe as well as inside linebackers Kyahva Tezino and De’Jon Harris — in rookie free agency.
“In order for you to be a great leader you have to first be a great follower,” said Bentley about this own experiences as a younger player and student of the game. “Being in college, you have the opportunity to learn when you get there. You don’t know everything, so you have to go in there and kind of learn the ropes a little bit and take in as much advice and leadership qualities from those veterans.
“It’s the same thing in the pros. You have to find the right guys to surround yourself with, the older guys and the veterans, and pick their brain and be a great follower, see the things that they teach and the things that they emphasize. In turn, you’ll be able to build your qualities and your character traits that you want to use and add it to your repertoire of leading personality traits,” the Purdue product continued.
As for himself, he has more than two years in New England on his résumé to build on.
Two years were marked by ups and downs: Bentley started his career as the Patriots’ number three linebacker and saw prominent playing time early on, but a biceps injury forced him to end his rookie campaign on the sidelines and watch his teammates win the Super Bowl without him. The following season, he was back on the field but used in a more marginal role compared to 2018. Still, Bentley has built a solid foundation between joining the organization and his third offseason in its system.
“I would say, obviously, knowledge — knowledge of the game and being able to kind of be on the field and direct traffic a little bit more coming from college to the pros,” he said when speaking about his personal growth. “You surround yourself with great veterans, which we have in our organization, so it was a huge opportunity to learn from those guys and kind of implement what you’ve learned and add it to your game.”
“I feel like Year One to Year Two, took some good steps, but Year Three, you also want to take those same progressive steps and take your game to the next level.”