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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Ja’Whaun Bentley could see his role change this year

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: P Jake Bailey

NFL: SEP 27 Raiders at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the NFL Draft in the rear-view mirror and voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series kicks continues with linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley.

Hard facts

Name: Ja’Whaun Bentley

Position: Off-the-ball linebacker

Jersey number: 8

Opening day age: 25

Size: 6-foot-2, 255 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Bentley entered the league 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 three 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 33 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 was also recognized for his leadership by getting voted a captain in 2020.

What did his 2020 season look like? The Patriots’ linebacker group suffering some high-profile departures during the 2020 offseason: Dont’a Hightower had opted out of the season due to concerns about the Coronavirus pandemic, while Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all left New England as unrestricted free agents. Bentley therefore entered the team’s 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 — wearing the communication device in his green-dotted helmet — 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, Bentley was on the field for 608 of a possible 1,017 defensive snaps (59.8%) and more than doubled his playing time share compared to 2019’s 27.5 percent.

In lieu of Hightower’s opt-out and the free agency departures, Bentley effectively served as the team’s number one off-the-ball linebacker. In this role, he was used not just as an early-down run defender — one that registered a combined 61 tackles in the ground game, including two for a loss of yardage — but also in coverage: Bentley dropped back on a combined 249 of his defensive snaps and saw passes thrown his way 9 times for a 3.6 percent.

He did surrender catches on 7 of those targets, but limited the damage by giving up just 40 yards 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 contributions. He attacked the pocket just 62 times from his second-level position but he was moderately successful: Bentley registered 10.5 quarterback disruptions in the form of 1.5 sacks as well as 6 hits and 3 hurries.

While he did post some solid numbers and ranked second on the team with 91 total tackles, Bentley’s first season as a full-time starter was not one that would make the Patriots forget about Dont’a Hightower. 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). Bentley did have his positive moments, but they did not come consistently enough.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? With Dont’a Hightower expected back from the Covid-19 opt-out list, and with other players on the roster also capable of playing the off-the-ball role, Bentley could be asked to become more of a role player again in 2021. That said, his experience and leadership make him a valuable contributor even if used in a package-specific rather than an every-down capacity.

What is his special teams value? The Patriots 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 and he only played on kick return and punt coverage teams. In 2020, meanwhile, he saw his special teams opportunities decrease due to his bigger role on defense.

Does he have positional versatility? While the Patriots did give him some snaps on the defensive line over the last two years, 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 even with Hightower out last season.

What is his salary cap situation? Entering the fourth and final year of the rookie pact he signed back in 2018, Bentley is currently on the Patriots’ books with a salary cap number of $995,988 — $75,988 of which in the form of his prorated signing bonus. Other than that, he carries no guarantees in his deal. Nonetheless, New England would free up only minimal resources in case it decided to release or trade the 24-year-old. Keeping him on the roster makes the most fiscal sense.

What is his roster outlook? Bentley was the Patriots’ top off-the-ball linebacker last season and should return as a starting-caliber defender in 2021 as well — one that might benefit from the added depth around him: with Dont’a Hightower back and improved depth pieces around the two of them (e.g. Anfernee Jennings, Josh Uche, Raekwon McMillan), New England could afford to use Bentley in a more specialized role better suited for his skillset.