With significant departures at his position, third-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley has a huge opportunity to emerge as a next-generation leader of the Patriots defense.
After a promising start to his career, which included a memorable interception against the Lions, Bentley's rookie season was cut to just three games when a torn biceps landed him on IR. But in those games he looked like a potential three-down linebacker as he stepped right in. It was a disappointing injury loss of a promising young player.
Bentley returned and played all 16 games in 2019, but with the arrival of Jamie Collins he was reduced to a rotational role, playing just over a quarter of the defensive snaps on the season. In just one game did he play more than half the snaps, a 16-10 win at Buffalo, never cracking the playing time he saw early in his rookie year.
Now with Collins and Van Noy departed via free agency, Bentley is eyeing a return to the potential he showed early in his rookie season.
"I would say this year, just like every year, just looking to find your role," Bentley told reporters on a video conference on Wednesday on his mindset. "Each guy has a role to play, I feel like we stress that a whole lot as an organization. Whatever that role might be that year, I'm going to look to progress as well as find as many opportunities as the team needs to be filled."
After two years of being mentored by players like Dont'a Hightower, Van Noy and Collins, Bentley is now poised to take over some of the leadership mantle both on and off the field. He also could assume some of the run-stopping responsibilities Elandon Roberts held.
"It's clear that those guys are huge players, they made big time plays time and time again," said Bentley on his departed teammates "Being able to have those vets and being able to bounce things off of them, as well as pick their brains as they've been so great all these years. Just picking their brain means a lot and it's good to have those kind of people in your locker room."
If Bentley can emerge as a balanced three-down linebacker it will be a huge boost to the depleted linebacker corps. After a lost rookie season, this is really Bentley's second season, a time when many players take a significant step forward in their game.
"Knowledge of be the game, being able to be on the field and direct traffic a little bit more coming from college to the pros," said Bentley when asked how he's improved. "Year one to year two took some good steps, but year three we also want to take those progressive steps to take your game to the next level."
The challenging times have not stopped Bentley from keeping communication lines open with teammates as well as joining last week's Boston Pray event that was organized by Benjamin Watson.
"Obviously, with the times we're experiencing right now, trying to address police brutality as well as systemic racism that's going on," said Bentley. "A lot of people are working hard, whether it's donating, protesting, a lot of different ways they want to make an impact. I felt like Ben's event was the perfect way to rejuvenate yourself as well as continue to use your platform to make an impact, to create awareness."
The depth behind Hightower and Bentley is dominated by three rookies, leaving a chance for Bentley to take even more of a leadership role for a young position group. After wrapping up their virtual offseason a couple weeks ago, Bentley said they're taking steps to make sure the rookies and new players can transition.
"I think our virtual meetings have played a big part.," said Bentley. "Obviously things are a lot different here and now, and none of us have really experienced anything as far as us not being in the facility or not experiencing minicamp atmosphere and things like that.
"So it's a huge adjustment for all of [the rookies] as well as us. But we still have opportunities to see them and create that atmosphere as much as we can so they'll be able to at least get to know us as people as well as teammates and we can continue to try to build that camaraderie and get to know them as well but at the end of the day it's a huge adjustment for all of us and we just kind of adapting with the times."
Just two short seasons removed from his own rookie year, Bentley is now the veteran getting his brain picked.
"That's a big thing, not being afraid to ask questions and not being intimidated by the atmosphere," said Bentley. "We also as older people want to create a safe space where they feel comfortable asking those questions. We're going to need them down the line so of course we want to create that space and allow them the opportunity to ask any questions they may have and be able to help them along the way just like I was helped."