Neither Chase Winovich nor Ja’Whaun Bentley eclipsed 30 percent of the New England Patriots’ defensive snaps last season.
But the sophomore outside linebacker and junior inside linebacker are in line for expanded roles. Both checked in on Football Outsiders’ Top 25 breakout prospects entering the 2020 NFL campaign.
The annual rankings, which highlight players around the league who have a strong shot at making an impact despite their lack of draft stock and lack of starts, saw Winovich land at No. 5 and Bentley land at No. 15.
“Winovich is a big winner in New England’s tumultuous offseason that saw Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy flee to former Patriots coaches in big-money deals,” Rivers McCown wrote for ESPN. “New England hit the pass rush hard in the draft with Josh Uche in the second round and Anfernee Jennings the third round, but Winovich is the only upside player the team has in the way of real experience.”
Players qualifying for Football Outsiders’ breakout criteria entered in the third round or later and are nearing their second, third or fourth season.
Winovich appeared in every game for the Patriots as a rookie after arriving at No. 77 overall. The Michigan product registered 26 tackles to go with 5.5 sacks in rotational pass-rushing duty. And on special teams, Winovich notched his first career touchdown by way of a deflected punt. He turned 25 in April and projects to start on the 3-4 edges alongside reliable veteran John Simon.
As for Bentley, a three-time captain at Purdue, he hit the ground running as a rookie in 2018 before a torn biceps sent him to injured reserve. Bentley returned to the field for all 16 games last year, starting twice on a crowded depth chart led by Pro Bowler and eventual opt-out Dont’a Hightower. The former No. 143 overall pick finished having gathered 44 tackles and a pair for loss. He’ll turn 24 during training camp in August.
“We still like Bentley a lot as a run-stuffer,” added McCown. “It’s a very small sample size, but he allowed just 49 yards on 12 targets in pass coverage in every game besides New England’s Week 4 game against the Bills. There’s little reason to believe he won’t be a three-down linebacker this year as long as he proves he can handle passing-down duties. That’s a long-term concern, but there’s not much in place to challenge him right away in 2020.”
The Patriots added inside-out versatility to the linebacker conversation in the later stages of free agency with Brandon Copeland. Also new to the unit is Cassh Maluia, a sixth-rounder from Wyoming, and undrafted signing De’Jon Harris out of Arkansas.