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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Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

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Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.