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Patriots 2022 roster breakdown: Ja’Whaun Bentley is the new leader in the linebacker room

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: Jake Bailey faces some competition for the punter job

NFL: JAN 02 Jaguars at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With free agency and the draft firmly in the rear-view mirror and organized team activities underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”

The team currently has 85 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.

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

Hard facts

Name: Ja’Whaun Bentley

Position: Off-the-ball linebacker

Jersey number: 8

Opening day age: 26

Size: 6-foot-2, 255 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 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 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.

2022 preview

What is his projected role? With veteran Dont’a Hightower remaining unsigned as a free agent as of the start of organized team activities, Bentley is currently projected as the leader of New England’s linebacker group. His value to the team obviously extends beyond leadership: the 25-year-old will also again see extensive action as an off-the-ball linebacker, primarily, but not exclusively, on early downs and in select situations as part of goal-line and short-yardage packages.

Does he have positional versatility? While the Patriots did give him some snaps on the defensive line over the last two years, Bentley’s area of expertise is off the ball as a traditional inside linebacker. As such, he is playing 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 to an extent, New England has only rarely used him outside of his comfort zone by moving him around the formation.

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. The last two years, meanwhile, his special teams opportunities decreased even further due to his bigger role on the defensive side of the ball.

What is his salary cap situation? Bentley returned to the Patriots in unrestricted free agency with a new two-year, $6 million contract in hand. In 2022, that deal will pay him a fully-guaranteed salary of $1.04 million as well as an $800,000 signing bonus proration and $610,000 in additional bonuses. Furthermore, Bentley will be able to earn up to $1.5 million in incentives. His salary cap number of $2.42 million is currently ranked as the 23rd highest on the team.

How safe is his roster spot? Based on the structure of his contract alone Bentley can be considered a lock to make New England’s roster: he is set to earn $1.84 million in guarantees this year, with his dead cap hit in case of a post-June 1 release standing at $3.1 million. Additionally, Bentley is currently the Patriots’ most experienced off-the-ball linebacker and one of the few safe projections at the position heading towards 2022. From that perspective he can feel good about his outlook this year.

One-sentence projection: Bentley will not suddenly turn into an All-Pro at the linebacker spot, but the potential team captain will be an important member of the Patriots defense throughout the 2022 season both on and off the field.