For most of the last decade, Dont’a Hightower was the unquestioned leader in the New England Patriots’ linebacker room. A former first-round draft pick who earned the nickname Mr. February for his clutch performance in three Super Bowl wins, Hightower led by example and set the tone for those around him.
With the 2022 preseason in full swing, however, Hightower is nowhere to be found. Even though the Patriots have yet to reissue both his jersey number and his prominently-placed locker, he remains unsigned in free agency.
With him gone and fellow veterans Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins also no longer part of the group, the Patriots had a leadership void to fill at linebacker. Fifth-year man Ja’Whaun Bentley has taken over that responsibility, and the troops have indeed started rallying behind him — at least according to one of his teammates.
“I’m not going to lie, Bent is our leader,” Matthew Judon said earlier this month. “8 is our leader and we’re all rallying behind him. That’s who our leader is.”
Position coach and former linebacker Jerod Mayo echoed Judon’s remarks a short time later.
“Bentley’s been great,” Mayo said. “It’s not just this year, he’s definitely grown since my first year coaching in 2019. It’s his room. It’s his room and he’s done an excellent job for us in the class room. He’s done an excellent job coming out here, being ready to go.”
Bentley originally joined the Patriots in the fifth round in 2018, and despite a lack of draft pedigree found his way onto the active roster. His rookie campaign came to a premature end due to a biceps injury suffered in September, but he still went on to appear in a combined 50 regular season and playoff games over the next four years.
Along the way, he proved himself to be more than just the one-dimensional run-stuffer he was touted as coming out of Purdue. He also received plenty of action against the pass and was recognized for his leadership by getting voted a captain in 2020 — filling in for Hightower who had opted out due to concerns about Covid-19.
Two years later, Bentley is again in line to take over as a leading voice in the Patriots locker room. The 25-year-old himself, however, is downplaying his role as the singular leader amid the linebacker corps.
“Obviously I guess I’m kind of like the eldest statesman in the room, but we have a lot of great leaders in our room which is kind of something we pride ourselves on,” he said following Friday’s preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.
“Guys that are able to take a lot of responsibility and be able to take charge if needed of not just the linebacker room but the defense as a whole. But it kind of comes with the territory. You look to do things the right way and just try to give and be a light that people could follow, especially being here for a little bit. I take that role.”
As opposed to Hightower, Bentley was re-signed in free agency earlier this year. Coming off the best season of his career, he returned on a two-year, $6 million contract — a deal that includes just $3.9 million in guarantees and is more reflective of the off-ball linebacker market rather than his potential outlook heading into 2022.
Accordingly, Bentley might just turn out to be one of the biggest bargains on the entire New England roster. No matter what will happen, though, one thing is certain: there is no doubt who is leading this new-look Patriots linebacker room into the upcoming season.