Does it sound like an exaggeration to say the fortunes of the Patriots defense rest on Ja’Whaun Bentley?
Probably. But might as well say it anyway. Because they do.
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When Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts fled the team in free agency, the linebacker level lost three guys who combined to take 1,829 defensive snaps in 2019 (81 percent of the plays for Van Noy and Collins and 20 percent for Roberts).
If Hightower — the brains and the brawn of the front-seven — was going to wreak his particular havoc, he needed liberation from the role of middle-of-the-defense traffic cop.
That’s where Bentley came in. If he could be “High” then “High” could be unleashed.
Now there’s no High either. And he played more than 700 snaps. So that’s 2,500 snaps from the linebacker group out the door. And three of the four players are very good-to-elite-level performers with complete understanding of how the Patriots want their defense executed.
So the Patriots lost almost their entire linebacker room; the 1B strength of the defense to the 1A strength that is their secondary. And the player left behind to stabilize things played just 27 percent of the defensive snaps last year.
Bentley didn’t just fall off the linebacking turnip truck. A fifth-round pick out of Purdue in 2018, he had a tremendous camp two years ago and was playing well in the early part of that season before a torn chest muscle ended his year after three games. He’s a good player. He just doesn’t have a long resume.
Jerod Mayo, the Patriots' inside linebackers coach and a guy who was thrust into the middle of things himself back in 2008 at the same position as Bentley, said don’t worry about the length of the resume.
“I’d say if you were to look at last year and look at his production per play, he was very productive when he was out there,” said Mayo. “And when you think about the players we had in that (linebacker) room in 2019, it was a crowded room. But when he did get an opportunity, for the most part, he performed well. So I look forward to giving him more opportunities, and hopefully he stays healthy and he's able to keep that production up.”
Mayo, the 10th overall pick in 2008, was plunked down in the middle of the Patriots defense as a rookie and was the near-unanimous AP Defensive Rookie of the Year after making 128 tackles.
In terms of having a mentor, Bentley couldn’t be in better hands. (Disclosure, I did TV with Mayo for about eight years … but we never got along). And Mayo can mentor Bentley on being a mentor to drafted linebackers like Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings among others.
“You lose guys like Hightower and Kyle, … Elandon, … now Bentley is really the guy as far as mentoring the younger players,” said Mayo. “I think he's done a great job up until this point as far as his leadership ability, taking control of the huddle and all those things. I look forward to continue seeing that growth going forward. Obviously, we don't have on pads right now. It's not 100 degrees out there on a summer day, you're out there tired and all that stuff. But I look forward to seeing that development continue under strenuous situations. But just his role as far as the communicator at the second level and also just his mentorship role with the younger guys (is important)."
Even though Bentley was relegated to a supporting role in 2019, Mayo indicated that was more a reflection on the experience of the others than Bentley's shortcomings.
“Physically, he's bigger than some of those guys last year,” said Mayo. “He's faster than some of those guys last year. It's more now (about) making the game slow down for him, getting more reps in practice. That's why this time right now is so important. But physically, this guy is gifted. He's a big, fast, strong linebacker, and he's a smart guy as well. I'm excited. I'm excited to give him an opportunity to be out there for a while."