Maybe it's not fair. But, as they say at One Patriot Place, it is what it is.
Ja'Whaun Bentley, in his third season, may be the primary fill-in for one of the most important Patriots defenders of the last decade.
Dont'a Hightower was one of the most indispensable Patriots in 2020 prior to opting out. He has long been the link between the front-seven and the secondary for the Patriots defense.
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He relays the plays. He directs traffic pre-snap, adjusting defensive linemen and reminding teammates of their coverage responsibilities with equal aplomb. And then there's his own personal unique skill set as a mauling run-defender, who also serves as the team's most talented pass-rusher.
In Hightower's absence — he opted out after becoming a father in July — there is no one-for-one replacement available to Bill Belichick. Fair or unfair, Bentley will factor heavily into the equation. At the moment, he looks like the favorite to take over from Hightower the defensive play-calling duties.
"This wouldn't be the first time I'm wearing the green dot," Bentley said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday, "but obviously that's the head communicator. That's the one who relays the calls to everybody. If that's the role I have to take on — which is highly likely — we have to be able to adjust to that. Everybody has a role to play. If that's what mine would be, I would have to do that and do it very well."
Bentley's career began inconspicuously enough, going to New England out of Purdue as a fifth-round draft choice. He wasn't even on the draft boards of some linebacker-needy teams in 2018, according to NFL sources, because his size (he was listed at 260 pounds at one point as a collegian) made him the antithesis of the "new age linebacker" who is smaller and excels in coverage.
The Patriots didn't mind, of course. They like their linebackers beefy. And Bentley made an impact almost immediately — in the run and pass games. He stood out as one of their best players at the position in training camp that year, and he earned two starts in his first three games as a pro. In Week 3 of his rookie season, after picking off Matthew Stafford for his first-career interceptions, he suffered a season-ending injury.
In his second year, his opportunities waned after the Patriots brought in Jamie Collins to serve as an off-the-ball linebacking partner to Hightower.
Now, Bentley knows it'll be up to him to help make up for all the linebacker losses the Patriots will have to account for in 2020. Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts all departed via free agency prior to Hightower's opt-out.
"Shout out to Jamie and High, all those guys," Bentley said. "Obviously respect the decision that Hightower made, he had no choice but to do that. But nonetheless we gotta come in here, try to work, we gotta work, guys gotta figure out their roles and we gotta keep pushing forward."
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However the Patriots linebacker room shakes out this season, Bentley has apparently done enough through two years to be viewed as one of the voices of the defense despite his inexperience. On the McCourty twins' "Double Coverage" podcast, they looked to Bentley as one of the young leaders of what's long been a veteran-laden defense.
In a linebacker group that'll include rookies Josh Uche and Cassh Maluia, Bentley has quickly become one of that unit's most experienced players.
"To me, Bentley's been a great player for us," Devin McCourty said on the July 26 episode. "Especially coming in as a rookie. He stood out right away, his knowledge. I think one of the best things about Bent is just his versatility. Whether it's against the run — obviously he's a stout, physical player — but even in the pass [game]. He was covering tight ends, covering backs out of the backfield.
"I think for every guy in the NFL, when you come in, and there are other players who've played for a while, and you get some playing time and things change each year, I know he's excited to work his butt off . . . You look around, he's gonna be one of our young, kinda leadership-type of guys. We'll count on him to really kinda try to [work] with those young guys. He's always done a good job of that since he's been here. I'm excited for him, along with some other good players that we have, just to get an opportunity to get out there and play a little bit more."
For Bentley, as he treads into an unusual season, he knows he can call on Hightower to help guide him along. No better source to draw from if Bentley is in fact going to be the primary answer to Hightower's absence.
"We're always talking," Bentley said. "He's definitely on my list of people to talk to, whether that's on leadership or anything. We have a lot of great vets I've been surrounded with over my past two years in New England so you're always picking those guys' brains, seeing what you can bring to your game. That's been my approach since Day 1."