The New England Patriots have brought another in-house free agent back into the fold. The team is reportedly re-signing linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley on a two-year deal worth a maximum of $9 million.
Coming off the best season of his career — one that saw him lead New England’s off-the-ball linebackers in snaps — the 25-year-old entered unrestricted free agency but will stay with the team that originally drafted him back in 2018. What does this mean for said team? Let’s find out.
The next domino has fallen at the linebacker position
The Patriots recently made some moves with an eye on the future of their off-the-ball linebacker position. Whether it was drafting Cameron McGrone in the fifth round, signing and later extending free agent Raekwon McMillan, or acquiring Mack Wilson via trade, the team has added some much-needed youth.
At 25, Bentley is also still on the younger side. He also has plenty of experience in the system, though, something none of the other three mentioned has: McGrone and McMillan missed virtually all of 2021 due to injury, while Wilson was added just this week.
Accordingly, Bentley still projects to play a prominent role for the group this year — a group that now looks as follows:
- Ja’Whaun Bentley
- Raekwon McMillan
- Mack Wilson
- Cameron McGrone
- Anfernee Jennings
- Harvey Langi
- Jahlani Tavai
- Terez Hall
A look at that group shows that it has solid depth — Jennings and Tavai, for example, are former Day 2 selections — but that the top of the group is still a question mark. Bentley is a proven starter, but has had his ups and downs; McMillan and McGrone did not appear in any games in 2021; Wilson saw his playing time decrease as a member of the Cleveland Browns and has no experience in the Patriots system.
Still, bringing Bentley back is yet another move to build a foundation for the group heading towards next month’s draft.
New England brings back one of its thumpers
After the Patriots acquired Mack Wilson via trade there was some chatter about them potentially changing their approach at the linebacker position to become better in coverage and thus more adaptable to today’s pass-happy game. While that might still be the overall plan, bringing back Bentley is still a good move.
Bentley, after all, is a thumper. While he did show some encouraging improvement as a pass defender in 2021, his strengths lie in his ability to attack downhill and take on offensive linemen as a run defender. At 6-foot-2, 255 pounds he has the size to do that — unlike Raekwon McMillan, Mack Wilson and Cameron McGrone, who are all noticeably smaller.
Had Bentley not been brought back, the players best suited to fill that thumper role would have been Anfernee Jennings, Harvey Langi and Jahlani Tavai. The situation would not have been ideal: Jennings and Tavai are relatively unproven, while Langi’s value lies more on special teams than defense.
Another leader is kept aboard
Two of the themes of the Patriots’ early free agency are building a solid middle class and keeping team leaders in the fold. Bentley helps New England do both: he is a solid player and valuable member of the defense who also was voted a captain back in 2020. While keeping him in the fold might not be the flashiest of moves, it certainly is a good one from a team-building perspective.
Two free agent linebackers remain left standing
Not counting special teamer Brandon King, who is officially listed as a linebacker after starting his career as a safety, the Patriots have two off-the-ball linebackers left on the open market: Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Their status remains very much in question with the first week of free agency slowly nearing its end.
While there have been no news on Hightower, there has reportedly not been any progress in contract talks between New England and Collins. According to the Boston Herald’s Andrew Callahan, it is possible the 32-year-old “won’t sign anywhere until after the first few weeks of free agency are over.”