Patriots

Sunday Notes: Ja'Whaun Bentley may be the key to the Patriots defense leveling up

Sunday Notes: Ja'Whaun Bentley may be the key to the Patriots defense leveling up

Analysis of the Patriots this offseason has focused mainly on what they don’t have and how/when they will get it.

Makes sense. When it’s time to shop and stock time, focus is on the things you need, not what you already have.

But while the offense is being retooled and redesigned, the Patriots defense – its strong suit in the 2018 playoffs – has the potential to be even better in 2019. And that’s even with the departure of Trey Flowers and three key defensive coaches – Brian Flores, Josh Boyer and Brendan Daly.

The key to the Patriots leveling up? It could be second-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. Why Bentley ahead of newly-acquired players like Michael Bennett, Jamie Collins or Mike Pennel or mainstays like Donta Hightower, Stephon Gilmore or Devin McCourty?

Because of the domino effect a healthy Bentley could have on the rest of the defense beginning with Dont’a Hightower.

The smarts and versatility Hightower brings in a uniquely fast and powerful package make him the player that the Patriots hoped they were getting when they signed Adalius Thomas more than a decade ago.

In 2016, Hightower’s value as an edge defender was tapped in the final five games of that championship season when he went from taking 22 percent of his snaps on the edge to 52. A play you may remember from his time there? His strip-sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl that made America sit up straight and say, “They really are going to do this, aren’t they?”

In 2017, Hightower was being readied for a bigger role on the edge (great insight on the move at that time from Pats Pulpit) but missed the first couple of games with a sprained knee. The Patriots defense was a confused shambles during his absence and – when he got back – he was back at inside linebacker. The improvement was drastic. But a torn pec in Week 5 cost Hightower the rest of the season and the New England defense was never as trustworthy after that.

Same thing last season. Hightower, who’d trained differently in the 2018 offseason and showed up more streamlined, was in for a bigger role on the edge. He began the season there and Bentley, a rookie from Purdue, was in the middle with the “green dot” as the lead communicator for the defense.

The Patriots opened 1-2, Bentley tore his pec, Hightower moved back to the middle, took over communication and things got better. Again. He capped the year with an MVP-worthy performance in the Super Bowl when he had a sack off the edge, another lined when he was lined up at defensive tackle and a pressure on Rams quarterback Jared Goff when he exploded through the Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein.

Kyle Van Noy’s eye-opening performance in 2018 came in part because he was able to play more freely with a PhD in linebacking next to him.

So, back to Bentley. He’s not going to approach Hightower’s level of institutional knowledge. But if he can get enough of it right, Hightower is then freed up to be in different spots. The likelihood of that happening? High. Bentley’s style is reminiscent of another No. 51, Jerod Mayo. With Mayo now coaching linebackers, Bentley becomes his pet project. Van Noy has another year of smarts and production under him and the return of Jamie Collins means the Patriots have two guys that can deal with the run, cover adequately and rush the passer while Bentley and Elandon Roberts take over as the guys relied on to deal with grinding running games.

Meanwhile, Hightower is continuing to train for speed. He’s now about 20 pounds lighter than the 270 pounds he carried when he was drafted so obviously, the intention is to have him spend less time in the middle. If Bentley can hold it down, a defense that closed last year holding the explosive Rams to just a field goal in Super Bowl 53 could be even better this year.

*****

It’s smart to keep an eye on the Kyle Rudolph situation in Minnesota. It’s devolved in the few weeks since the draft since the cash-strapped Vikings and the 29-year-old tight end hit an impasse. Rudolph is due $7.625 in salary. Asked last week if he’d consider a pay cut, his answer was, “No way. I’m too young for that.” That is the correct response for a player who’s caught 204 passes for 18 touchdowns the past three seasons with Case Keenum, Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford throwing to him.

If the Patriots were to trade for Rudolph, they have to create space. And this could create urgency to get Tom Brady’s contract restructure done so that his $27M cap hit comes down and there’s room to fit Rudolph.

Even though the Patriots whiffed on the tight end they went after hardest to replace Rob Gronkowski – Jared Cook – they’ve done a good job whipping bodies at the spot since with Matt LaCosse, Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Benjamin Watson. Rudolph is a different level player, though, in terms of production and durability.

Would trading for him mean one of the other tight ends would be immediately cut loose? And would Rudolph’s addition mean a post-Thanksgiving return by Gronk would be less likely (though I’m not sure it’s likely right now)?

If the Patriots do make that move, it would be bad news for the AFC.

*****

It has to be encouraging for the Patriots to see wide receiver Demaryius Thomas able to build some straight-line speed as he works back from his Achilles injury. But even if he’s trending upward now, the process of getting back to full speed is still just beginning

Thomas will almost certainly start training camp on the PUP list and – even if he is able to compete by early September – he probably won’t be full speed and confident for another two months based on medical sources I’ve spoken with. So the decision will be whether activating a less-than 100 percent version of Thomas in September is necessary or whether the Patriots and Thomas will choose to wait. I’d bet on the latter.

*****

The NFL is putting together some interesting lists for the league’s 100th anniversary and I’m one of the 50 voters enlisted to help choose the winners. Huge honor. The categories are Greatest Play; Greatest Teams; Greatest Games; Game Changers; and Greatest Characters. The process begins with Greatest Plays. We are charged with logging on to a website, reviewing 100 plays and choosing the top 50. We’re trying to establish how much I can legally share with you all while going through the process so stay tuned because I love input.

PERRY: Roster projection 2.0 - Does Jamie Collins make it?>>>

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Michael Holley Podcast: Clay Cook of the Zac Brown Band - Why he loves music, and how Super Bowl LI was as a Falcons fan

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Michael Holley Podcast: Clay Cook of the Zac Brown Band - Why he loves music, and how Super Bowl LI was as a Falcons fan

Michael talks to Clay Cook of the Zac Brown Band about music, his Boston connection and what it was like as Falcons fan to watch the Patriots Super Bowl LI comeback

3:00 - Clay explains why he chose to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston and how he and good friend John Mayer began their music careers together.
 

4:30 - Clay talks about which instruments he can play, tells the story about how he fell in love with the guitar and how he decided to turn his musical talents into a career.
 

9:00 - Clay discusses his relationship with John Mayer.

13:00 - Clay talks about being an Atlanta Falcons fan, his experience being at the Patriots’ comeback win in Super Bowl LI and how he respects Boston sports fans.

20:00 - Clay discusses being an Atlanta Hawks ball boy for a small period of time in the late 80s and early 90s and watching some all-time greats like Dominique Wilkins and Doc Rivers. 

23:30 - Clay talks about his approach to singing the national anthem and his past experiences doing so.

28:00 - Clay talks about touring with Zac Brown Band and how the band still isn’t as popular as most people think.

32:00 - Clay finishes up by giving one thing he loves about his industry and one thing he would change.

LISTEN & SUBSCRIBE HERE:

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Julian Edelman puts percentage on chance Rob Gronkowski returns to Patriots

Julian Edelman puts percentage on chance Rob Gronkowski returns to Patriots

Rob Gronkowski says he's done with football, but his pal Julian Edelman isn't 100-percent convinced.

Edelman discussed Gronk's retirement on Barstool Sports' "Pardon My Take" podcast and was asked to give a percentage on the former tight end returning to the Patriots somewhere down the line.

"I’d say, maybe, an 11 percent chance,” Edelman answered.

Sure, that may be a cop-out response considering 11 happens to be Edelman's jersey number, but Patriots fans can at least find solace in the fact he didn't say "zero."

Edelman also says while he hasn't had a conversation with Gronkowski about the injuries taking a toll on the 30-year-old throughout his career, he could tell Gronk was banged up last season.

”When you’re banged up, football’s not always fun," Edelman said. "I can speak for myself on that. When you’re dealing with things — ankle, foot, back … Football is amazing when you feel great. … But it’s not easy, especially when you get older and have accumulated a lot of injury. So, you started seeing that it was tougher [for Gronkowski]. It gets tougher for everyone."

Gronkowski seems adamant he's staying retired, but he's certainly gotten a kick out of trolling those who believe he'll eventually return to the gridiron.

Time will tell whether the future Hall-of-Famer will change his mind. Until then, you can bet Gronk will continue living every moment of retired life to the fullest.

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