The New England Patriots enjoyed having the No. 1 ranked defense in the entire NFL for 2019, but for Bill Belichick to continue to dominate on that side of the ball his club will need to do some patchwork at linebacker. There's naturally been a lot of talk regarding Tom Brady's departure in free agency, leaving the quarterback position in a state of flux that it hasn't seen in over two decades, but the Patriots were also gutted at the linebacker spot. Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts both went down to Miami to sign with the Dolphins and Jamie Collins inked a deal with the Lions.
Those free agent losses alone were going to be a difficult mountain to climb for the Patriots, but the task grew even more daunting following the decision by Dont'a Hightower, the leader to that linebacking corps, to opt-out of the 2020 season due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. And with a Thanos-like snap, the Patriots are faced with replacing three starters (Hightower, Van Noy, Collins) and one critical role player (Roberts).
All hope isn't lost, however, as the Patriots do have some promising young players that could step up in these veterans' absence. First and foremost, third-year linebacker Ja'Whuan Bentley comes into the limelight. The former fifth-round pick out of Purdue is primed to adopt a lot of responsibility in the middle of the defense in 2020, but current inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, who knows a thing or two about playing linebacker in New England, believes he has the potential to take over.
"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," Mayo said of Bentley, via Tom E. Curran of NBC Sports Boston. "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."
Despite being a Day 3 selection back in 2018, Bentley put together an impressive camp that summer, donned the green dot at times and carried that strong play into the regular season. He played in New England's first three games (two starts) that year, but then suffered a torn biceps that sidelined him for the season. The 23-year-old returned in 2019, but played sparingly (27.28% of the defensive snaps), stashed behind the likes of Hightower, Van Noy, and Collins. Now, he's a position to not only start in their absence but be asked to recoup some of the production that is being left behind.
To further emphasize how much production the Patriots lost: Collins (81) and Hightower (71) were New England's top two tacklers in 2019, Collins (seven) and Van Noy (6.5) led the team in sacks, and all three of those linebackers were in the top-five in terms of defensive snap counts on the team. Roberts, meanwhile, was a key run-stopper defensively and played at fullback as well as on special teams in 2019.
Not only will Bentley be asked to produce on the field, but the third-year linebacker also finds himself in a leadership role, needing to mentor New England's 2020 draft picks like Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, two rookies who will also be given bigger roles in 2020 out of the gate.
"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)."
As Mayo highlighted, Bentley does have all the tools (size, speed, intelligence) to ascend into a more prominent role within New England's defense, but now it's a matter of putting it all together when the reps start becoming live.