Despite the New England Patriots retaining most of their defense from last year, the unit will look quite a bit different in 2023. Long-time team captain Devin McCourty, after all, announced his retirement in mid-March.
Replacing McCourty will be a collective effort for the team. There are several realistic candidates to take on bigger roles both on and off the field, though.
A top option among them is Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Entering his sixth season with the team, Bentley is the Patriots’ No. 1 off-the-ball linebacker and was voted a captain in two of the last three seasons. He also is one of the longest-tenured defenders on New England’s current roster, and, if Jerod Mayo is to be believed, will be a “cornerstone” moving forward.
“You saw the season that he put together last year,” the Patriots’ linebackers coach told reporters at Gillette Stadium earlier this week. “I would say [he is] a player who is very smart, knows the entire defense. He’s fast, he’s big, he’s strong at the point of attack. He’s just a great player. I would say he’s always had great leadership skills, and obviously with the loss of Devin ... Bentley will be a huge cornerstone to that rebuild.”
Bentley originally arrived in New England as a fifth-round draft pick in 2018. While he had to end his rookie season on injured reserve and played only a minor role in 2019, he increased his workload significantly in his third year: with Dont’a Hightower opting out due to concerns about Covid-19, Bentley filled his role in the heart of the defense.
He had his ups and downs as the team’s defensive on-field signal caller (prompting the Patriots to give that role to Devin McCourty), but the Purdue product still showed enough to keep a prominent role even with Hightower returning the following year. Since 2021, he has been a key piece of New England’s defensive efforts and the following offseason signed a two-year deal to stay with the team.
If Mayo’s remarks are an indication, he will not be going anywhere anytime soon.
Of course, Bentley is not the only linebacker possibly taking on more responsibilities in 2023. The team also has Jahlani Tavai as the No. 2 at the position, and it re-signed both Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson in free agency. Terez Hall, Olakunle Fatukasi and Calvin Munson offer depth behind them.
Even with the draft yet to come, Mayo is quite happy with the state of the group.
“The camaraderie that those guys share, they are a very tight group,” he said. “They all work hard, they all watch film. I’m confident. Guys that are here, guys that aren’t here, they are still in contact. During the break they would go work out with each other. I’m excited for the group. They all bring something to the table.”