With the NFL free agency and draft both in the rear-view mirror, and the second phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are officially “on to 2023.”
At the moment, the Patriots have a full 90-man roster. Only 53 of those players will be able to survive roster cutdowns and ultimately make the active team, with others competing for practice squad spots. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take an in-depth look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping New England rebound from a disappointing 2022 season.
Today, the series continues with sixth-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Name: Ja’Whaun Bentley
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
Opening day age: 27 (8/24/1996)
Size: 6’2”, 244 lbs
Jersey number: 8
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
Before entering the NFL in 2018, Bentley spent four years at Purdue. He appeared in 38 total games and despite struggling with injuries during his sophomore and junior seasons put up some solid numbers: he registered 272 tackles, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and a sack in his time as a Boilermaker. His production put him on the Patriots’ radar, and they ended up investing the 143rd overall selection in the fifth round of the draft to bring him aboard.
Since then, Bentley has developed from a rotational-level player to one of the Patriots’ most important players and a starter at the heart of the defense. Despite missing most of his rookie season due to a biceps injury, he has still played a combined 67 regular season and playoff games since arriving in New England. Along the way, he registered 389 tackles, 5.5 sack, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Additionally, he was voted a team captain on two separate occasions (2020, 2022).
Stats: 17 games (17 starts) | 907 defensive snaps (80.3%), 93 special teams snaps (20.4%) | 122 tackles, 10 missed tackles (7.6%) | 3.0 sacks, 2 hits, 6 hurries | 47 targets, 37 catches, 321 yards, 1 INT | 3 special teams tackles, 1 fumble recovery
Season recap: Coming off the final year of his rookie contract, Bentley entered unrestricted free agency in March 2022. After two days on the open market, however, he eventually returned to the Patriots via a new two-year, $6 million contract — a comparatively moderate investment in a player who would eventually become New England’s No. 1 off-the-ball linebacker and a starter-level player.
With fellow free agent Dont’a Hightower not returning to the Patriots, Bentley took over as the leader in the linebacker room. He was voted a team captain for the second time in his career after 2020 and played an integral role on one of the NFL’s better defenses: appearing in all 17 of the Patriots’ games, he was on the field for 907 of a possible 1,130 defensive snaps; only one of his defensive teammates — safety Devin McCourty — had a higher playing-time share than Bentley’s 80.3 percent.
The fifth-year linebacker made the most of his time on the field, leading the team in tackles and run stops, and providing a physical presence at the second level of the defense. All things considered, the 2022 season might just have been the best of his career so far.
It's known that Ja'Whaun Bentley is one of the most physical linebackers in the game, but his play recognition and quickness to the ball have come a long way— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 24, 2023
He also showed more versatility last year, with more time spent on the edge being one example pic.twitter.com/z3mqe76ozM
His contributions as an early-down defender are well-documented, but Bentley also had a positive impact against the pass. He registered a career-high three sacks and on 407 snaps in coverage allowed 37 receptions on 47 targets. Opposing quarterbacks did manage to complete 78.7 percent of their throws in his target area, but he gave up only 6.8 yards per target and no touchdowns while also picking off one pass in Week 8 against the New York Jets.
He was not perfect, though, and missing 7.6 percent of his 132 tackle attempts contributed, in part, to the Patriots’ early-season struggles against the run. That said, Bentley was able to successfully fill the gap created by Hightower’s departure; he took over the role the future Patriots Hall of Famer filled for many years.
In addition to his work on defense, Bentley also saw regular action in the kicking game. Playing 93 of 457 special teams snaps (20.4%), he contributed primarily on kickoff coverage and registered three tackles as well as a fumble recovery in Week 18 versus the Buffalo Bills.
All in all, Bentley showed why the Patriots brought him back.
What will be his role? Bentley is the No. 1 off-the-ball linebacker on the Patriots’ roster and as such will see extensive action on the defensive side of the ball. While he is better playing downhill than dropping back into coverage, he has shown that he can successfully serve as a three-down player who will rarely leave the field. In addition, his role in 2023 might also include serving as the defensive signal caller — a role previously held by since-retired safety Devin McCourty.
What is his growth potential? Entering the sixth season of his career, Bentley has very much established who he is as a player. That said, his role might still continue to evolve especially with the aforementioned Devin McCourty now off to retirement; the 26-year-old will be asked to help fill the leadership void and possibly increase his responsibilities as an on-field communicator.
Does he have positional versatility? Bentley does not necessarily offer the same do-it-all skillset as former Patriots linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy or Jamie Collins, but he has shown some positional flexibility through the years. In 2022, for example, “only” 85.4 percent of his snaps (775 of 907) came off the ball. The rest was split between the defensive line as an outside linebacker (106; 11.7%) or split out either in the slot (21; 2.3%) or even wide (5; 0.6%). In addition, Bentley saw action on three special teams units — punt coverage and, to a lesser degree, punt and kickoff return — last season and registered three tackles.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second and final season of the two-year contract extension he signed with the Patriots last offseason, Bentley is carrying a salary cap hit of $5.05 million — the 10th-highest such number on the team, and 20th highest in the league among off-the-ball linebackers. His deal consists of a $2.14 million salary, $800,000 signing bonus proration, $510,000 in active roster bonuses, $100,000 offseason workout bonus and $1.5 million in likely-to-be-earned play-time incentives. His entire signing bonus and part of his salary are fully guaranteed for a total of $2.06 million.
How safe is his roster spot? Bentley is among those players who can be placed into the “roster lock” category. The team captain is playing on a reasonable contract, coming off arguably the best season of his career, and is a leader both on and off the field — all while playing a position that is not necessarily the deepest on New England’s roster. Add it all up, and you get a player who will not be going anywhere in 2023.
One-sentence projection: Bentley will again finish the season among the Patriots’ leaders in defensive snaps, and several statistical categories.