Built around Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr., the New England Patriots fielded one of the best linebacker groups in all of football last year. The trio played a key role in the team’s defense finishing first in scoring, and consistently proved its value against both the pass and the run — so much so that both Van Noy and Collins left New England the following offseason after seeing big free agency offers come their way.
Van Noy eventually joined the Miami Dolphins on a four-year, $51 million deal; Collins signed with the Detroit Lions on a three-year, $30 million pact. Losing the two veterans already weakened the Patriots’ depth at their position, Hightower later exercising the Coronavirus opt-out was the proverbial cherry on top: all three of New England’s star linebackers won’t be back in 2020, leaving the team without its most experienced options and playing-time leaders from a year ago.
In fact, only one member of the Patriots’ 2019 off-the-ball linebacker corps is back this season: Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Bentley, who arrived in New England as a fifth-round draft choice in 2018, was the number four option at the position last year. Appearing in all 17 games, he was on the field for one fourth of defensive snaps as a versatile option against both the run and the pass, and proved himself a solid rotational player. Heading into his third year in the league, however, his role will drastically increase following the Patriots’ offseason departures at linebacker.
The most experienced member of the group now, he is not only projected to see substantially more snaps but also to take over Hightower’s old role as the unit’s lead communicator. Wearing the green dot on, and the radio device in his helmet is not an entirely new experience for Bentley, though, as he pointed out during a media conference call in late August.
“This won’t be the first time I’ll wear the green dot,” said the 24-year-old. “But obviously as the head communicator, as the one who relays the calls to everybody, if that’s the role I have to take on, which is highly likely, you just have to be able to adjust to that. Everybody has a role to play, and if that’s what mine will be, then I have to do that and try my best to do that very well.”
Bentley was first given the role as the defense’s lead communicator in Week 3 of his rookie season, but with the experience ahead of him on the depth chart was never a realistic candidate to take over full-time. This will obviously change this year, as he will fill an integral role within the Patriots’ defense both on and off the field.
After all, Bentley was also voted one of New England’s team captains this season — another first for him. The players’ decision to elevate him to this status should not be seen as a surprising one, however, given his experience within the system and based on how one of his teammates described him during his own media session on Monday: defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. praised Bentley’s intelligence and leadership skills.
“He’s definitely earned it,” said the fourth-year man about Bentley. “The last three years, he’s definitely shown and proven why he should be our captain this year. Young, but very intelligent, very cerebral, knows how to take the playbook and make it work to where it fits what he’s trying to do. He’s able to command on the field; he has that ‘field general’ mindset which the coaches and players definitely notice and appreciate.”
Given their personnel turnover and youth within their defensive front-seven, the Patriots will certainly need Bentley to live up to his new role and the “field general” label that Wise Jr. gave him. His approach, meanwhile, will not change no matter how different his role both on the field and within the locker room will look like as he pointed out shortly after his captaincy was announced.
“I’m always looking to better myself whatever my role is, and just take it head on and do whatever it takes to make that happen.”