Can a rookie linebacker walk in and call defensive plays for the Patriots?
A fly on the wall of Ja’Whaun Bentley’s locker must be tired at the mention of the word progress. It’s a favorite in the lexicon of the Patriots’ tantalizing rookie linebacker, and one that effectively captures the trajectory of his first NFL preseason.
Simply put, Bentley is turning heads with his play.
Just a fifth-round pick, Bentley nabbed Elandon Roberts’s spot in the starting lineup in New England’s second preseason game, a 37-20 win over Philadelphia last Thursday. The 21-year-old tallied six tackles and returned a Nick Foles fumble 54 yards for a touchdown.
One of the primary reasons the Patriots’ defense performed ineptly in the 41-33 shootout loss to Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII was the absence of linebacker Dont’a Hightower, considered the heartbeat of the unit. Without him in the middle, New England wilted in the face of a creative and peppy Eagles attack.
Hightower is back for the 2018 season and joined by someone he believes has displayed a knack for leadership well beyond his years.
“[Ja’Whaun] came in wanting to learn and I think he’s done that,” said Hightower. “He’s gotten a lot of respect from the older guys, just the way he can come in and command the defense and make all the right calls and adjustments.”
Stressing communication has been a calling card of Bentley’s dating to his years at Purdue.
Bentley’s predraft profiles described him as an ultra-physical run-stopper who welcomed contact. Though his capabilities in pass coverage lacked the tenacity of his bursts toward the trenches on handoffs, the 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pound ball of fury always knew how to call a play, transmit a message to a teammate, and audible out of a plan should circumstances warrant such a deviation.
“At every level it comes down to building that trust,” Bentley said. “You build trust with your teammates [so] they can depend on you, and that’s anywhere. Communication is key, especially as a ’backer, getting the plays in and just communicating at a high level so everybody is on the same page.”
Bentley already is busy forging those bonds, as evidenced by his loose and outgoing nature in the locker room.
“It’s been great, not only with the ’backers but with the whole defense,” said Bentley. “We’re constantly just building off of each other and looking for ways to take the next step and progress, whether it’s game-planning, conditioning, anything.”
Bentley’s steadfast commitment to progression has caught Hightower’s hawk-like eye.
“I think he’s done a great job,” said Hightower. “I definitely think if he keeps moving in the right direction, he’s going to be a good ballplayer. Every day he strives to get better, even on a lackadaisical day. I commend him for that and a lot of veterans respect that.”
New England’s veterans aren’t the only ones showing Bentley a level of respect generally reserved for elders. The coaching staff has taken note, too.
In the Patriots’ first preseason game against Washington, Bentley played 53 percent of the defensive snaps, the fourth most on the unit.
He made six tackles — two for losses — and was competent in coverage and relaying plays to the huddle.
The preseason opener represented a deviation from Bentley’s assumed role when he was selected on draft day. Clearly, training camp had been a success for the Glenarden, Md., product.
“Sometimes it takes being nit-picky and focusing on every detail of your game, just looking for something that you can get better on, whether that’s taking better steps or things like that,” Bentley said. “Anything. Just look to progress.”
Bentley is unwilling to place one aspect of his game above the others.
Just because hitting comes easily, whereas coverage demands knowledge of opposing playbooks, Bentley believes specializing in one area will leave others vulnerable.
For a linebacker, that’s simply unacceptable.
“I just come out here and I just do my thing every time I touch the field,” he said. “I’m just making sure I progress every day, whether that’s in a hitting aspect or a covering aspect. I just look to better myself any way I can.”
The linebacker position is the perceived weakness of this Patriots’ defense. If Bentley continues to play as he has and — you guessed it — progress, he’ll be prominent in changing that narrative.