Ja'whaun Bentley

Patriots' Ja'Whaun Bentley embracing opportunity to shine at linebacker

Patriots' Ja'Whaun Bentley embracing opportunity to shine at linebacker

The linebacker depth on the New England Patriots roster has been hit hard this offseason.

The team saw several veteran players at the position depart in free agency. Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts both signed with the rival Miami Dolphins, while Jamie Collins took his talents to the Detroit Lions. Collins led the team in sacks in 2019, with Van Noy right behind him. Roberts was a team captain and also played on special teams in addition to his responsibilities on defense. 

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

The Patriots drafted three linebackers with their 10 picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, but they will need several of the linebackers already on the roster to step up next season and fill the roles of the veterans who recently departed.

One player excited to take his game and role to another level is Ja'Whaun Bentley. The 2018 fifth-round pick impressed as a rookie and played quite a bit of snaps before his first season was cut short due to a biceps tear. He returned in 2019 and played in all 16 of the Patriots' games, tallying 38 solo tackles with one interception and two passes defensed. 

Where does Bentley think he's grown in his short pro career?

"I would say, obviously, knowledge – knowledge of the game and being able to kind of be on the field and direct traffic a little bit more coming from college to the pros," Bentley said in a video conference call with reporters Wednesday. "You surround yourself with great veterans, which we have in our organization, so it was a huge opportunity to learn from those guys and kind of implement what you’ve learned and add it to your game. So, I feel like year one to year two, took some good steps, but year three, you also want to take those same progressive steps and take your game to the next level." 

Listen and subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast:

One of Bentley's best qualities is his leadership. He was a captain in college at Purdue, and he has shown those same traits in New England. It's a part of his game we could see more of both on and off the field next season.

"I would say that I’ve always taken the approach, in order for you to be a great leader you have to first be a great follower," Bentley explained. "Being in college, you have the opportunity to learn when you get there. You don’t know everything, so you have to go in there and kind of learn the ropes a little bit and take in as much advice and leadership qualities from those veterans.

"It’s the same thing in the pros. You have to find the right guys to surround yourself with, the older guys and the veterans, and pick their brain and be a great follower, see the things that they teach and the things that they emphasize. In turn, you’ll be able to build your qualities and your character traits that you want to use and add it to your repertoire of leading personality traits."

It remains to be seen what kind of role Bentley will play on the Patriots defense in 2020. He also isn't sure what his exact fit will ultimately be, but he's open to helping the team in any way possible. 

"Each guy has a role to play. I feel like we stress that a whole lot as an organization – finding your role and sticking with it," Bentley said. "So, whatever that role may be this year, just going to look to progress, as well as find as many opportunities that the team needs to be filled."

2018 NFL Draft: Only four Patriots remain from draft-in-bulk approach

2018 NFL Draft: Only four Patriots remain from draft-in-bulk approach

The Patriots had Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Damien Woody and Tom Brady in 2001. They had Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer and Matthew Slater in 2010.

Under Bill Belichick, as the Patriots went from version 0.0 to 1.0 to 2.0, there was a young core in place that served as their pulse. As they went, the team went. Championships followed. 

The outlook for version 3.0 is hazy. The young core is thin and rife with question marks after the Patriots went about maximizing Brady's last few seasons in New England by trading away picks for established veterans. Who makes up the core now? How many core pieces are there?

We're examining each of the Patriots' last four drafts to see how they got here, on the brink of a new era for the longest-running dynasty in modern NFL history, with an uncertain road ahead.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

In this edition we tackle the 2018 draft, when the Patriots had two first-round choices and got back to drafting in bulk after a meager (only four picks, none until the third round) 2017 class.

Isaiah Wynn, OL, Georgia (Round 1, Pick No. 23)

Good athlete. Smart. Came from an offense that wasn't a glorified seven-on-seven scheme. Wynn was an ideal Patriots offensive lineman, and he was physically gifted enough to earn a shot at the left tackle job despite being shorter and possessing shorter arms than the Patriots prototype.

He did get that shot, then tore his Achilles as a rookie. He came back to start his sophomore season on Tom Brady's blind side but got hurt again. A foot injury sapped half his season. All in all, he looks like he could be a staple up front for the Patriots. But he's played eight games in two years. 

Who they could’ve had: D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland (Round 1, Pick 24)

Sony Michel, RB, Georgia (Round 1, Pick No. 31)

The Patriots double-dipped on Bulldogs in the first round, taking a running back who was projected to be a do-it-all pro. He was a dynamic, slashing runner who broke arm tackles regularly for Kirby Smart's program. But as a pro, his value in the passing game has been almost nonexistent.

He now looks like a specialist who would qualify as a Patriots "big back," taking on the role once held by LeGarrette Blount and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. There's value in that. He helped carry the team to a long playoff run and Super Bowl win in 2018. He could grow into more of a receiver or pass-protector moving forward. He's still young. But knee injuries have taken him off the field at times and perhaps stunted his growth.

Who they could’ve had: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (Round 1, Pick 32)

Duke Dawson, CB, Florida (Round 2, Pick No. 56)

This pick was one of many that spawned from the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Made sense at the time. He was a slot-specific defensive back. Slot corners have value because slot receivers are among the most efficient in football. Didn't pan out. Clearly.

He injured his hamstring during a drill in his rookie training camp, and was placed on injured reserve to start that season. The Patriots designated him as one of their players to return off of IR, but he never played a snap that season. He was traded the following summer to the Broncos (along with a seventh-round pick) to get a sixth-rounder in return. 

Who they could’ve had: Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma (Round 3, Pick 86)

Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB, Purdue (Round 5, Pick No. 143)

Bentley was viewed — as a 260-pound linebacker — by some linebacker-needy teams as not being worthy of a spot on their draft board. He was a dinosaur. Too big. Too slow. Not someone who'd thrive when speed and quickness is becoming more important for second-level defenders in coverage. The Patriots didn't care. They like their 'backers beefy.

Bentley actually ended up winning a key defensive role right off the bat. He started the season-opener and two of his first three games. An injury in Week 3 sapped the remainder of his season. Stuck behind a deep linebacker group in his second season, Bentley didn't have much of a chance to make an impact. But that might be coming for him in Year 3. After losing Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, they need capable bodies at the linebacker level. Given what he showed as a rookie, Bentley is certainly capable. 

Who they could’ve had: Michael Dickson, P, Texas (Round 5, Pick 149)

Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State (Round 6, Pick No. 178)  

Into Day 3 of the draft, the Patriots took their hacks at some potential special-teamers and reserve types. Sam falls into that category. A linebacker with good athleticism and toughness, he landed on injured reserve before the start of his rookie season. Sticking with the team for his Year 2 training camp, he was released and not re-signed to the practice squad. The Dolphins, run by former Patriots assistant Brian Flores, scooped him up for their practice squad first. He's since bounced around a bit to the Niners p-squad and the Lions p-squad. He's set to enter camp with Matt Patricia's Lions. 

Who they could’ve had: Gus Edwards, RB, Rutgers (Undrafted)

Listen and subscribe to Phil Perry's Next Pats Podcast here: 

Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami (Round 6, Pick No. 210)

Berrios was a water bug-quick route runner with punt-return experience who was considered a leader for the Hurricanes during his tenure there. He was yet another rookie who ended up on IR for a team that was loaded with capable veteran contributors. It looked like 2019 might be his chance to work his way into a role, but he had an odd training camp. At times it looked like he was lost. At others he looked like he had an opportunity to fill the slot the Patriots wanted to address with Cole Beasley or Adam Humphries in free agency.

Then he was held out of preseason game No. 3. He was released at the end of camp. He seemed like an ideal candidate to try to sneak onto the practice squad. The Jets didn't let that happen. Despite limited preseason game reps, he was claimed off of waivers and added to their active roster. He ended up seeing offensive snaps in 11 games but caught just six passes on 10 targets for 115 yards. 

Who they could’ve had: Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State (Undrafted)

Danny Etling, QB, LSU (Round 7, Pick No. 219)

The Patriots explained after the draft that they liked Etling's performance at his pro day. He had a good arm. He was smart. He might not have been coached up all that well at LSU. His offense there might've been a little wonky. Maybe he was a diamond in the rough?

Not so.

While he was the consummate professional throughout his rookie camp, his highlight of the summer was an 86-yard touchdown run in the preseason finale. He spent that year on the practice squad and came back to Patriots camp the following summer as a receiver. He was waived before the end of camp and picked up by the Falcons. He spent most of the 2019 season on the Atlanta practice squad as a quarterback.

Who they could’ve had: Kyle Allen, QB, Houston (Undrafted)

Keion Crossen, CB, Western Carolina (Round 7, Pick No. 243)

The Patriots took a flier on an athlete from little-known Western Carolina, and by the end of the year, it looked like they'd hit. Crossen was a special-teams contributor throughout his rookie season — really all one could ask from a seventh-rounder — and he popped up in the AFC Championship Game that year with a key defensive role. For a period that day, he shadowed Chiefs burner Tyreek Hill with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.

It looked like he could be molded into a defensive contributor with time. He didn't get that in New England, where the corner room was crowded. He was dealt to the Texans at the end of training camp in 2019 for a 2021 sixth-round pick.

Who they could’ve had: Levi Wallace, CB, Alabama (Undrafted)

Ryan Izzo, TE, Florida State (Round 7, Pick No. 250)

A Jersey kid who went to Florida State and became a key contributor in their pro style offense, Izzo made sense as a hard-nosed camp body. He'd compete with whoever was behind Rob Gronkowski. Make 'em work. He'd chip in on special teams, potentially. Still looked that way headed into 2019 after he missed his entire rookie season on IR (sensing a theme here?). We never assumed he'd be the defacto No. 1 tight end after Gronkowski retired. But he was at times. Matt LaCosse was injured. Other veteran acquisitions didn't work out.

Critical game snaps fell to Izzo for four weeks (Weeks 1, 3, 5, 6), who was serviceable as a receiver in spurts but looked overwhelmed in the running game. For 2020, he looks like a backup option to LaCosse and/or whatever tight end is drafted later this month. Izzo, A.J. Derby (2015) and Lee Smith (2011) are the three tight ends the Patriots drafted after taking Gronkowski in the second round in 2010.

Who they could’ve had: Poona Ford, DT, Texas (Undrafted)

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Where do Patriots turn if Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins depart?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Where do Patriots turn if Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins depart?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

As the Patriots rolled to one of their best defensive seasons under Bill Belichick, their linebacker group was as deep as it had been in years. So deep was this spot that Belichick and his staff opted to roll with a 3-4 scheme — deploying more 'backers at one time — after having adopted more 4-3 fronts in recent years.

The leader of this group, Dont'a Hightower, will be back. But with some critical pieces set to hit free-agency, there could be another schematic shift ahead should this unit thin out ahead of 2020.

PLAYER-BY-PLAYER LOWDOWN

Dont'a Hightower: Hightower played in all but one game in 2019 and served a critical role as the signal-caller. With an ability to play both at the end of the line of scrimmage and off the line in the middle of the defense, Hightower's football IQ and versatility will make him one of the most valuable players on this side of the ball in 2020. He's going into a contract year. 

Kyle Van Noy: One of the big-ticket free agents the Patriots could see depart this offseason, Van Noy is coming off of a career year. He had 6.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus ranks him as its fifth-best edge defender on the market and project that he could earn over $10 million per year on his next deal. The Patriots haven't paid top dollar to edge defenders in the past — Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers are both playing elsewhere — but Van Noy can play off the line and provides Bill Belichick's fronts some flexibility.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Jamie Collins: Another free agent from this group, Collins ended up playing off the line of scrimmage more than he served as an edge defender. Getting him in space and allowing him to use his athleticism in coverage and as a blitzer suited his skill set. When the Patriots got gashed against the run against the Titans and Ravens last season, though, Collins was often on the scene. He's PFF's No. 3 off-ball linebacker on the open market. Do teams around the league view him as the disruptive passing-game player he was in 2019? Or is he the player they saw in Cleveland who needed a career revival in Foxboro last season? The Patriots could look to bring him back if he's not going to break the bank elsewhere. 

John Simon: The Patriots could get out from under having to pay Simon in 2020 since releasing him would cost them only $375,000 and save them about $2 million in cap space. But would they? Bill Belichick praised his effort and consistency throughout the season, and his role increased as the season went on. After not cracking 30 snaps in three of the team's first five games, he hit 30 or more in seven of his last nine. He's going into a contract year. 

Chase Winovich: Outside of punter Jake Bailey, Winovich ended up being New England's most productive rookie. Used as a situational pass-rusher, he was in on seven sacks. He also recorded three quarterback hits and 13 hurries. Should Van Noy move on, the Patriots could look to Winovich to increase his role and add more first and second-down duties to his list of responsibilities. 

Ja'Whaun Bentley: Though Bentley played in all 17 games for the Patriots this year, he did so in a reserve role. After a promising rookie year in 2018, during which it appeared he was primed to be a starter, perhaps no player's playing time was more significantly impacted by Collins' addition. If Collins were to depart via free agency — or if this group experiences more injuries in 2020 — he could be in line for more work. He has two years remaining on his rookie deal.

Shilique Calhoun: Another in a long list of outside linebackers coached by Demarcus Covington last year, Calhoun ended up having a greater special teams role than he did on defense. He played 55 defensive snaps in the season opener, but just two in the Wild Card Round. He's set to become a free agent this offseason.

Elandon Roberts: Another free agent set to hit the market, Roberts' case is a fascinating one. He was a captain in 2019 for the first time. He provides a measure of toughness that Belichick appreciates. And he showed a willingness to take on a never-before-seen role mid-season when he was given fullback duties. Will that profile be worth more to another team than the Patriots? Or will they want him back if they appreciated how he handled an unusual contract year? 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES

Jordan Jenkins: Van Noy, because of his ability to play both the run and the pass, might be New England's best option if they feel they need to come away from this offseason with an experienced outside linebacker. Other big-name options — Jadeveon Clowney, Shaq Barrett, Yannick Ngakoue — may end up being even more expensive while lacking Van Noy's experience in the system.

A more cost-effective piece who could potentially slide in? Jordan Jenkins, who has been with the Jets since 2016. The Patriots showed interest in Jenkins, a Georgia product, prior to that year's draft. A team captain for the Bulldogs, the 6-foot-2, 260-pounder has long arms (34 inches) and massive hands (11 inches). He's stout enough to play the run, and he checked in with 8.0 sacks last season.

De'Vondre Campbell: If the Patriots want an off-the-ball type to guard against the potential losses of Collins and Roberts, Campbell is an intriguing talent. A fourth-round pick of the Falcons in 2016, he's not quite as heavy as the Patriots usually like their off-the-ball linebackers — he checks in at 6-foot-4, 232 pounds — but he's a superb athlete who can cover backs and tight ends. He led the Falcons in tackles with 129 last season.

If the Patriots wanted to go smaller and faster with a familiar face, Kamu Grugier-Hill (drafted by the Patriots in 2016) is available after spending the early portion of his career with the Eagles. He'd be an immediate special teams stalwart. If the Patriots wanted to go bigger and burlier in the middle of the field on early downs, former Bills and Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland (a second-round pick out of Nick Saban's program in Alabama in 2016) is also a free agent.