The Patriots linebacking crew has undergone a dramatic makeover since the end of last season.
Gone are some of the scariest “Boogeymen” in the business, replaced in large part by a group of rookies, who may understandably be a little intimidated by joining one of the most intimidating defenses in the league.
Not so, according to Ja’Whaun Bentley.
“We have rookies that aren’t afraid to ask questions,‘' Bentley said Tuesday afternoon in a video call with reporters. “That’s a big thing, not being afraid to ask questions and not being intimidated by the atmosphere.”
Bentley, who was a rookie out of Purdue just two years ago, is expected to take on more responsibilities on and off the field as he helps turn the latest cast of characters in the linebackers’ room into another frightening faction of defenders.
New England lost Jamie Collins (maybe the scariest of the “Boogeymen”), Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts to free agency. To replenish, the Patriots signed veteran Brandon Copeland and spent high draft picks on Josh Uche (second round) and Anfernee Jennings (third).
Dont’a Hightower remains the leader of the pack, but Bentley is running second, considering his knowledge and experience with this defense. Though Bentley played just 27 percent of the defensive snaps last year, a major reason was because of the veteran depth ahead of him.
Now he’s poised to make an impact similar to the one he made as a rookie when he followed a sizzling summer with a sterling start before a torn biceps ended his season after three games. Bentley said he used the last two seasons as on-the-job training, acting like a sponge while watching his teammates perform.
“I would say knowledge — knowledge of the game and being able to be on the field and kind of being able to direct traffic a little bit more,” Bentley said when asked about his improvements. “Coming from college to the pros, 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 been learning and add it to your game.
“I feel like Year 1 to Year 2, [I] took some good steps, but Year 3, you also want to take those progressive steps and take your game to the next level.”
Bentley was grateful for being able to play and learn alongside Collins and Van Noy.
“[I learned] through their personality and how they are on the field,” Bentley said. “It’s clear that those guys are huge players. They make big-time plays in big-time moments. You’ve seen it time and time again. Being able to have those kind of vets and bounce ideas off of them, and pick their brains to see how they’ve been so great throughout these years, [it] means a lot.‘'
Bentley, who is no stranger to being a leader as the first three-year football captain in Purdue history, is looking forward to relaying his wisdom to the younger players.
“I definitely think that being in a position where you have played a few years, and you do have knowledge, I feel like the best benefit would be to share that knowledge,” he said. “It’s no good to have knowledge if you’re not willing to share it with anybody. So, me not being too far removed from those experiences, I feel I have a lot to offer.”
Though the pandemic has kept players away from Gillette, Bentley said he’s been able to build some bonds with the rookies through the team’s virtual meetings.
“We also want to create a safe space in which they feel comfortable asking those questions. We’re going to need them down the line,” said Bentley, who has played mostly middle linebacker but is open to all possibilities this season. “Of course we’re going to create space and afford them to opportunity to ask any questions they have and be able to help them along the way, just like I was helped.”
Bentley attended former teammate Ben Watson’s Boston Pray gathering Sunday and called it a “perfect” event.
“Obviously, the times we’re experiencing now, dealing with trying to address police brutality, as well as systemic racism that’s going on in the area, a lot of people are working hard, whether it’s donating, protesting, a lot of different ways they want to make an impact,‘' Bentley said. “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.
“A lot of times, you begin to kind of wither down with the constant talk, and the constant creating [of] awareness where you need to kind of regroup, try to fill your tank up, so to speak, in a way to continue to create awareness. I thought that was a great opportunity to do so.”