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Ja’Whaun Bentley might be the Patriots’ most improved player this season

Related: Bill Belichick likens Adrian Phillips to Patrick Chung: ‘He almost always does the right thing’

NFL: NOV 18 Patriots at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2020 offseason saw the New England Patriots lose four of their top five linebackers: Dont’a Hightower opted out of the season due to concerns about Covid-19, while Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all left as unrestricted free agents. The only top-five player at the position left was Ja’Whaun Bentley.

A former fifth-round draft pick entering his third season as a Patriot, Bentley entered training camp as a prime candidate to fill a prominent role within the team’s defensive front seven and take over as a starting off-the-ball linebacker. Bentley did just that, and more.

He took over Hightower’s role as the primary on-field signal caller and also was voted a captain by his teammates ahead of the regular season. He also had the most productive campaign of his three-year career as a Patriot, appearing in 13 of a possible 16 games and playing roughly 60 percent of New England’s defensive snaps.

While he did get considerable opportunities as the new leader of the linebacker group, Bentley’s first season as a full-time starter was not one that would make the Patriots forget about Hightower and company. He had his fair share of ups and downs, struggled with groin and shoulder injuries over the second half of the season, and also was stripped of the lead communicator role heading into Week 4 (safety Devin McCourty took over).

He did have his positive moments in a challenging situation, but those did not come consistently enough to help a struggling New England defense.

Fast forward one year, and you get a different Ja’Whaun Bentley — one who might even be the most improved player on the team’s roster this season.

His game against the Atlanta Falcons last Thursday is a prime example of the strides the 25-year-old has taken this year. Wearing a different jersey number after switching to No. 8, he is now playing much more confident football and in turn having a major impact as an early-down defender:

Whether it is successfully shooting gaps as a pass rusher, closing down rushing lanes quickly from the second level, or dropping back into coverage, the 2021 version of Bentley is playing a much higher and more consistent level than last season’s. So, what has changed for him in the final year of his rookie contract?

According to head coach Bill Belichick, it is a mix of factors.

“He’s done a great job of last year taking control of the defense with [Hightower] not here and some of the other players who we had in ‘19, you know, Jamie, and last year and then moving into this year,” Belichick said about Bentley earlier this season. “He still continued to step that role up. He’s very smart. Very good communicator. Physical player.

“But I think he’s taking it to another level this year in training camp and even in the first couple of games in terms of his aggressiveness and instinct and just reading and recognizing things a little bit quicker. Just that split second at that position is a big difference a lot of times between a tackle for a loss and an 8-yard gain. I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence and playing a good physical style of football — taking on blockers, tackling, jamming receivers. Doing all those things, and, again, very smart to handle and make adjustments on the defense.”

What also changed is the cast of characters around him. While the Patriots were forced to use inexperienced players such as Terez Hall and Anfernee Jennings in sizable roles, they now have the luxury of having one of the deepest linebacker groups in the NFL: Hightower is back, as are Van Noy and Collins; the team also added Matthew Judon to the equation.

Bentley’s role has not changed dramatically with those high-quality players surrounding him, but it appears his confidence has. As belichick pointed out, he is reacting quicker and shutting plays down earlier than he has in the past.

New England’s defense as a whole has played some very good football recently, in part because of Bentley taking his game to the next level.