Ja'whaun Bentley

Patriots versatility at linebacker looking like a strength of their defense

Patriots versatility at linebacker looking like a strength of their defense

ALLEN PARK, Michigan — Matthew Stafford has had a chance to stare down the Patriots defense for the last two days, and a couple of things have stood out — particularly at the second level.

"There's some big physical guys out there, no doubt," he said Tuesday. "Their linebackers are really big and physical. [No.] 54. [No.] 8. And they got a safety [No.] 22 rolling around out there that looks like a defensive end. They've got some great players."

The Patriots don't only bring size and physicality to the table at the linebacker level with players like Dont'a Hightower (No. 54), Jamie Collins (No. 8) and versatile 6-foot-4 safety Obi Melifonwu (No. 22). They come at you in waves. 

Among the strengths of the Patriots roster — at least in early August — is the talent they boast at linebacker. On our most recent roster projection, a whopping nine of our 53 active-roster spots went to linebackers. And we might've even left off some names who've proven over the last few days that they can play. 

"Oh, elite,” said Kyle Van Noy when asked about the team's depth at that position. “Elite. I think it’s very elite. I’m very excited to let loose and see what we all can do together. I’m really excited for it, as some people have knocked us. We’re slow and all that. I’m excited to come out and play."

It looks like Bill Belichick is going to do what he can schematically to take advantage of his depth, and his players' varied skill sets, at linebacker in 2019. If he makes a shift to a defensive scheme that favors 3-4 looks over 4-3 looks, as has been the case thus far in training camp, it'd allow him to get more linebackers on the field and potentially add a layer of deception to his front for opposing quarterbacks to sort through. 

A defense that features two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers — and here's the important thing: if those four players are somewhat interchangeable — could play games with the minds of quarterbacks on a snap-to-snap basis. 

"A lot of offenses try to game plan for guys being in certain spots in certain situations," Hightower said. "Whenever we're able to mix it up, line up different, be in a different front, or blitz, cover, drop, whatever, nobody really knows where we're at. As long as we continue to grow the chemistry between ourselves and continue to learn the defense we'll be alright."

Hightower is the best example of a truly interchangeable piece. He can serve as the brains of the defense in the middle of the field on one snap and then kick down to set an edge on the next. Van Noy has experience off the line and on. Jamie Collins has played both. We've seen Ja'Whaun Bentley play at the second level and closer to the line of scrimmage as well. 

The Patriots have edge players who look like they have the ability to contribute in Chase Winovich (impressive in Tuesday's practice versus Lions offensive linemen), Derek Rivers (hard to block in one-on-one drills throughout camp), Shilique Calhoun (dominant at times on Monday) and John Simon (ditto). They have a true middle linebacker like Elandon Roberts who has been getting reps with the starting defense. 

Add them to a mix with versatile pieces like those above and the possibilities are endless.

"I think it's fun," Hightower said. "A lot of times guys are just lined up in one part spot, but one of the things we do here is you get asked to do one, two, three different things if possible. It definitely makes our defense unique and a lot different. It's just good to be able to drop here, cover a back here, blitz here, coordinate a rush over here. I think everybody kind of enjoys not knowing where you're going to be, just waiting to hear the call."

While Stafford found success against the Patriots and their fronts last year, he admitted Tuesday that they've been a challenge for him this week between their changing looks and the sheer talent of their players.

"I feel like every time we've played them we've gotten something completely different," he said. "This practice has been no different than that. It's something new every time. That's what they like to do. Scheme you up. Make you play left-handed. I thought we did a good job of adjusting. One of their best assets is just the players they have. They've got good scheme and all that but those guys fill those roles extremely well and are really talented players."

Bentley could, in some ways, be the key. The second-year 'backer out of Purdue was impressive enough early last season to earn a starting role before getting hurt against the Lions in Week 3. When healthy, his presence in the middle of the field — often as the green dot-wearing linebacker barking out the calls his teammates — allows players like Collins and Van Noy more freedom to use their athleticism off the edge to drop or rush. 

While recovering from his biceps injury, Bentley stuck around the team. He went to meetings. He ate up as much information as he could so that when Year 2 rolled around he would have an opportunity to hit the ground running. 

"He's a young player but he's very smart," Hightower said. "He's definitely been a sponge. All last year he wasn't one of the guys who went home or whatever. He stayed around, was in all the meetings, taking notes and stuff. 

"Having guys like him around only helps. Not just our linebacker room but the defense as well, having a guy like that who knows the defense pretty well and is able to talk and help guys get lined up and make adjustments. Whenever you have all guys on the same page like that you can simply look at him and say one thing and have him thinking the exact same thing, definitely helps."

"[He's] just comfortable," Van Noy said. "Was around us so we got a relationship with him. In all aspects. He's just a good player and I'm excited to see what he does."

That year behind the scenes for Bentley might end up being critical to how things go for the linebacker group this year. Not only does his strong tackling and cover ability give him the physical skill set to play the middle — and free up Van Noy and Collins to play on the line — but his mind gives Hightower and other veterans on that side of the football a valued sounding board in competitive situations.

It's already shown up this summer. 

"Whether we're looking at formations and him giving you a guess on what the play might be based on down and distance, or whether it's an adjustment with a motion or something," Hightower said, "that's been something that's really been good in our room this year. A lot of guys that have different perspectives. Everybody doesn't play the same. We kinda get taught the same thing, but we all have different tools so it's always good to have different guys to speak about different things."

"We gotta all be on the same page so you look to rely on everybody on your defense," Bentley explained. "You have confidence in those guys and you're looking to constantly build those relationships, build that camaraderie so you can be out on the field and just handle business."

The Patriots have inside and outside linebacker groups — coached by Jerod Mayo and DeMarcus Covington, respectively — that are brimming with talent and high football IQs. That should provide Belichick freedom in terms of how he organizes his defense, and it should give opposing quarterbacks headaches. 

But it's still early, and the players in those rooms are smart enough to know that what qualifies as promise now doesn't mean much. 

“I think we know what kind of tools we’ve got, but if we don’t use them, what do you really have?” Hightower said. “So we’re talented or have experience, whatever you want to call it. We have to go out and execute to that and not get complacent.”

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How will Ja'Whaun Bentley's return impact Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy?

How will Ja'Whaun Bentley's return impact Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where our focus will be when practices begin. Today we take a look at the return of Patriots second-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley and what that might mean for the rest of the Patriots defense. 

Jerod Mayo has to be excited. As the new inside linebackers coach for the Patriots, he'll be working with not only a pair of veteran 'backers who've proven to be big-time contributors in Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. He'll also have Ja'Whaun Bentley to teach. 

The second-year player was given Mayo's No. 51 last year and was the team's most promising youngster early on. (You'll remember, it was tough sledding for Sony Michel in the season's first few weeks, and JC Jackson hadn't yet emerged.) Before suffering a season-ending biceps tear in Week 3, Bentley had already made an impact on Bill Belichick's defense. 

He played in the middle of the field, he could be seen helping to direct traffic at times (though not surprisingly he at times needed directing himself), he blitzed, he played the run, and he was trusted to run with tight ends and running backs in coverage. The fifth-round choice out of Purdue was not thought to be an NFL-caliber athlete by some clubs when he entered the draft, but he was trusted on all downs and started two of the team's first three games, playing in 138 of a possible 217 snaps (63.6 percent). He racked up 14 tackles, a quarterback hit, one tackle for a loss and one interception in that time.

Now healthy and ready to get back on the field for the start of training camp, it'll be interesting to see exactly how Bentley is deployed. He played primarily in the middle of the field at the "Mike" linebacker spot last year, wearing the green dot that identified him as the player relaying linebacker coach Brian Flores' calls. One would expect, given his football IQ and where he fit last season, he'll be back in that spot again. 

The question is: What will that mean for his teammates, many of whom helped to nearly shut out the Rams in Super Bowl LIII as Bentley watched?

The assumption many places is that Hightower will suddenly be freed to take on more of an edge-defender role with Bentley back in the middle. That may be true, particularly if the Patriots roll out more 3-4 front-seven looks than they have in recent seasons. Hightower's power at the point of attack and relentless pursuit of quarterbacks (when given the opportunity) would fit perfectly in a "Sam" or "Jack" outside linebacker role.

But when Bentley was on the field last season, Hightower was often playing off the line alongside him. He helped get things organized and helped Bentley decipher what was in front of him. Whether Bentley was available or not, Hightower was the brain of the entire defensive front. There were times when the Patriots would go with a five-man front, putting Bentley off the ball in the middle of the field and Hightower on the edge, but oftentimes Hightower and Bentley played a bit of a two-man game in the middle. 

There were snaps where both hovered the A-gaps and then dropped into coverage. At times they faked blitzing those same gaps and one chased up the field while the other dropped. Against the run, if both were off the ball, they flowed to their assignments in a synchronized charge. 

Hightower could benefit from not having to direct as much traffic as he's used to with Bentley going into his second year and likely understanding much more than he did as a rookie. Bentley should be able to shoulder more of that pre-snap workload. 

Another player whose role could be adjusted -- someone who could be spending more time on the edge -- with Bentley back in the picture is Van Noy. He was used almost exclusively a left outside linebacker with Bentley on the field for those three weeks last season. No surprise there. His size and athleticism are ideally suited for that spot. He's strong enough and polished enough to rush off that edge, and if a back leaks out of the backfield, he's fast enough to run and chase when needed. That look of Van Noy on the line off the left side -- whether that was the strong side or not, meaning he played both the "Sam" and "Will" roles -- and Bentley and Hightower off the line was used prominently against the Texans and Lions, which were the two games Bentley started in 2018. 

Upon re-watching Bentley's snaps last season, I was also reminded just how often he was used in coverage, which could have a trickle-down effect on Patrick Chung. It was Chung (and at times Devin McCourty) who spent a significant amount of time last year running with tight ends and backs. I'd expect the same to be the case again this year, but with Bentley now an option, it could allow the Patriots to get a little more creative with their matchups. As a primarily man-to-man defense, having myriad defenders to roll out against short-to-intermediate passing game targets should provide the Patriots defense with a ton of flexibility.

Yeah. Mayo has to be licking his chops. We'll see how he helps his young promising linebacker as the two work together closely over the course of the next month in camp.

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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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