Coming off a 2021 season that saw them return to the playoffs but eventually come up short on wild card weekend, the New England Patriots have a long list of to-dos this offseason. One of its items is bringing back players who are scheduled to enter free agency.
There are quite a few of them: all in all, 18 players that were with New England last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 16.
Name: Ja’Whaun Bentley
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
Jersey number: 8
Opening day age: 26
Size: 6-foot-2, 255 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
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 four 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 50 regular season and playoff 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 recognized for his leadership by getting voted a captain in 2020.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off a challenging season that saw him struggle with inconsistent performances and injuries, Bentley bounced back in 2021. No longer asked to be the team’s number one off-the-ball linebacker thanks to Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins all returning after spending the 2020 season either on the Covid-19 opt-out list (Hightower) or on other teams (Van Noy, Collins), the former fifth-round draft pick delivered what was arguably the best season of his career.
Bentley continued to play a starter-level role for New England, but he did not have the same responsibilities that were handed to him when Hightower opted out the previous year. Accordingly, the Patriots were able to use him in a fashion that best reflected his abilities: he was employed primarily on early downs with a focus on either stuffing the run from his second-level position or dropping back into coverage if need be.
He performed better in the first department than the second, but overall had a solid year. While that was made possible in part due to the superior talent that surrounded him, Bentley proved himself a productive player on one of the best defenses in football. Bentley finished the 2021 season as the team’s leader in both tackles (111) and forced fumbles (3), and also registered nine combined quarterback pressures: he had a sack as well as five hits and three additional hurries.
Appearing in 16 regular season games as well as the Patriots’ playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills, he was on the field for a combined 62.5 percent of defensive snaps (709 of 1,135) and a key member of their defense. That said, not all was positive for the 25-year-old. He surrendered two-thirds of passes thrown his way — 31 of 46 for 332 yards — and also missed time due to injury: he sat out one game due to a shoulder issue and exited the game in Buffalo after just 18 snaps because of an arm injury.
Overall, though, Bentley can feel good about what he put on tape heading into free agency for the first time in his career.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? After joining the Patriots as the 143rd selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, Bentley agreed to a standard four-year rookie deal that was valued at $2.76 million. He spent his entire career so far under that pact, and has actually outperformed it: due to performance escalators, the 25-year-old has earned an estimated $2.93 million, according to Over the Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? In case the Patriots do not re-sign him before the start of the 2022 league year on March 16, Bentley will likely see some opportunities to leave the team. Among those looking to bolster their off-the-ball linebacker depth this offseason are the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams and Las Vegas Raiders. The latter might be a team to watch this offseason given that head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler just came over from the Patriots last month.
Why should he be expected back? There are three basic reasons why New England might decide to hold onto Bentley this offseason. Not only does he have considerable experience in the system, he also likely will not break the bank due to his comparative one-dimensionality as a player. Furthermore, keeping him around would give the team some flexibility as it relates to fellow free agent linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Why should he be expected to leave? Even if they make some corrections, the Patriots are tight against the cap this year. As a result, they will have to make decisions based on what type of investments are the best given their financial situation. One could argue that keeping Bentley is rather low on that list of priorities, especially if there is some competition from a team like the Raiders to keep him around.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Even though Bentley will likely not break the bank in free agency — early-down linebackers have been devalued lately — him leaving New England would not be a surprise. The aforementioned Raiders, who need linebacker help and will try to rebuild their culture around the McDaniels/Ziegler combo, make too much sense as a potential landing spot. But even if he does not go to Las Vegas, the Patriots will avoid overcommitting.
Will the Patriots re-sign Ja’Whaun Bentley?
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