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Ja'Whaun Bentley Shares Message With Patriots Teammates on Veteran Report Day

The linebacker set the tone for a Patriots defense returning most of its contributors from last season while adding three early-round rookies to the mix. 

Patriots linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley.
Patriots linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley.

The Patriots are one step closer to hitting the practice fields for the start of their 2023 Training Camp as veterans reported to Gillette Stadium to bring the full squad together on Tuesday.

Although football practice will need to wait one more day, and then a five-day acclimation period will commence before padded practices begin next week, players went through physicals and the team's conditioning test on the Patriots version of the first day of school. Typically, the Pats conditioning test consists of 20 sprints of 60 yards with a short break. If a player fails his physical or conditioning test, he could start Training Camp on the Physically Unable to Perform List (PUP). Hopefully, this won't happen for any of New England's 90-rostered players.

Along with reacclimating themselves, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and captains Matthew Slater, David Andrews, and Ja'Whaun Bentley spoke to the media to kick things off heading into the 2023 season.

One topic that gets overlooked by more compelling discussions about the offense is optimism about the Patriots defense building on last season's performance. In 2022, the Pats defense finished third in Football Outsiders' DVOA efficiency metric and was first in weighted DVOA, which puts a heavier emphasis on games that happened later in the year.

New England also ranked tied for second in takeaways and scored a league-high five touchdowns defensively. The Patriots have big shoes to fill with the retirement of veteran captain/safety Devin McCourty in the secondary, but returned more defensive players than any team in the NFL this offseason and added first-round cornerback Christian Gonzalez and day-two selections DE Keion White and S/LB Marte Mapu.

With the three early-round additions in the draft, the hope is that the three rookies will put the defense over the top so that it can stand its ground against elite offenses and dominate inferior opponents to silence criticisms about how the defense has performed in big games.

Despite the league's highest player retention rate on defense, Belichick pointed to the rookie and veteran additions as to why the team will work on re-establishing a foundation in the early stages of camp rather than starting from an advanced point in their installation period.

"I think we've got to rebuild the foundation every year," Belichick told Patriots.com. "We drafted [Christian] Gonzalez, we drafted [Keion] White, we drafted [Marte] Mapu, [Chris] Board; we have other new players on the team here, and others. Not just limited to those guys and other players that you've got to start at the base with them and build their foundation. If we skip over that and throw those guys in at a point where they don't have the foundational communication, awareness, understanding, then they're just going to be lost."

"It's good for all of us to go back and rebuild our foundation, our communication, our terminology, definitions. Some of those have changed. We change them from year to year. We find something new or something that we talked about before that doesn't really come up much anymore. We shove those things aside and have to make room for something else."

The Patriots defense will build on the foundation they began laying in the spring over the next week before the evaluation period starts in the full-contact padded sessions, and one of the main things the defense will focus on before contact becomes a factor is communication.

New England will miss future Patriots Hall of Famer Devin McCourty in many ways, but McCourty's on-field communication as the field general of the secondary might be the biggest one. With McCourty organizing the backend, the Pats seldom found themselves on different pages or busting coverages. Belichick pointed to veteran linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley as the key to that transition.

"He's a signal caller, obviously taking a bigger role in the communication defensively without Devin [McCourty]. He did that anyway, but he's stepped that up even a little bit more. Somebody has to be the decision-maker defensively, so now it's fallen a little bit more to him in certain situations. On and off the field, he's a great worker, a leader, a very positive voice, a communicator on defense, and a good football player."

After a standout 2022 season where Bentley ranked eighth in Pro Football Focus's grading a month inside linebackers, the Patriots rewarded him with a two-year contract extension. As he heads into his sixth season, Bentley, who has worn the green dot as the primary front-seven play-caller before, will now shoulder more responsibility with McCourty retiring.

"I wouldn't blow it out of proportion too much," Bentley said of being the primary defensive signal-caller. "I've been communicating a lot, especially with the front seven. But as far as having the mic (in my helmet), I've worn the mic every now and then the past few years, too, so it's not foreign territory."

According to teammate Matthew Slater, Bentley addressed the team on Tuesday morning, another sign that the sixth-year pro is emerging into a leader in New England's locker room. The Patriots linebacker's message was simple.

"You've got to focus on what matters at the moment. Obviously, there's going to be a lot of stuff going on — speaking on the past, speaking on the future — but none of that matters. You've just got to be where your feet are, and that's pretty much my message at all times," said Bentley.

A few other key talking points from Belichick's first press conference of the summer were about second-year CB Jack Jones's availability and veteran defensive lineman Lawrence Guy's status. Jones was arrested last month on gun charges at Logan Airport, while Guy reportedly held out of mandatory minicamp due to a contract dispute.

Although Belichick wouldn't comment on Jones's ongoing legal situation, the Patriots head coach confirmed that Jones will practice with his teammates starting Wednesday.

From a football perspective, Jones had a standout spring where he made multiple impressive plays on the ball, manning the outside cornerback spot opposite first-round pick Christian Gonzalez. The young CB duo has the individual talent to elevate the defense, and their consistency to hold down their positions gives the Pats great depth and flexibility at slot corner and safety to spin the dial in the backend to confuse opposing quarterbacks.

As for Guy, ESPN's Mike Reiss is reporting that the run-stuffing defensive end reported to the facility on Tuesday, seemingly ending any speculation that he'd extend his holdout into the summer.

The Patriots season might hinge on their new-look offense under offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien bouncing back. However, the Pats have a potential top unit on paper that can carry over positive momentum from a year ago on the defensive side of the ball.

Although the offense has major questions to answer, New England's defense looks and sounds like it'll be among the league's best once again.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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