This pair of disruptors has injected the Patriots’ defense with youthful vigor
FOXBOROUGH — Linebacker was a revolving-door position for the Patriots in 2017. The defensive line endured its share of struggles, as well. New England’s pass rush often fell dormant, and Dont’a Hightower’s late-October injury left a leadership vacancy in the middle of the unit.
This year seems to be spinning a different tale. Much was made of New England’s two major free agent signings — defensive linemen Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn — and both appear to be acclimating well to the Patriots’ competitive environment.
Yet it’s another pair of disruptors who have injected the defense with a healthy dose of youthful vigor, as well as maturity beyond their years. Five-year veteran Kyle Van Noy is impressed with what he’s seen from the precocious tandem of 22-year-old rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and 24-year-old defensive end Keionta Davis.
“They’re very mature,” said Van Noy. “They work hard and they want to win. I think that’s the attitude you want to have, here and always. They’re here early, stay late. They’re doing a good job.”
Getting in early and leaving late is essential to sticking around as a youngster in Foxborough. Bentley has spent his life being placed in what he deems “uncomfortable situations,” each teaching him something new about the importance of perseverance and a strong work ethic.
Diving into a professional environment in which he’s required to perform a multitude of tasks hasn’t fazed him. Bentley responds to questions about “surviving” film sessions with a laugh.
“You would like to think every situation — whether it’s through high school or college, being placed in many uncomfortable positions — you learn to just roll with the punches and just be calm in every situation,” he said. “Don’t react too harshly, or not harshly enough.”
Much like a gymnast, linebackers seek balance both physically and mentally. Achieving success at the position requires one not to overcommit to the run or to the pass, instead preaching patience, then pouncing when the time is right.
Everything Bentley says is measured, and it’s reflected in his presnap poise.
“I’m a calm individual,” he said. “You can be calm and competitive. I would say they both go hand in hand. Sometimes you get caught thinking too much if you’re not calm, so you want to be as relaxed as possible and also have that hard edge about yourself.”
Bentley, the only three-year football captain in Purdue history, played more snaps (51) than anyone else in the Patriots’ front seven in last Sunday’s 27-20 victory over Houston. He made the most of his playing time, notching seven tackles, a quarterback hit, and a tackle for loss in his NFL debut. Bentley also made an impact on the special teams, where he played another 15 snaps on Sunday.
“He reminds me a little bit of a guy I got drafted with,” said Matthew Slater, referring to former Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo. “They wore the same number. He’s really been a leader. His buy-in has been tremendous; his play on the field has been tremendous. He’s a player that players in this locker room really trust and have a lot of confidence in.
“He’s not afraid to be himself, to lead. He’s a very intelligent player and he’s going to hold guys accountable. The [No.] 51 that came in with me, that’s what he did better than anybody I’ve ever been around.”
Davis took a more circuitous route to establishing himself as a worthy contributor on defense. His pass-rushing prowess has always been apparent, since his time at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
“We got to go against the bigger schools, like Alabama, Florida State, Tennessee,” he recalled. “You always have some good guys to go out there and measure yourself against.”
A bulging disk, however, was discovered in Davis’s back during the 2017 NFL Combine, tanking his draft stock. He made his way to New England last August as an undrafted free agent, nursing his way back to health slowly on the non-football injury list.
Davis finally began to feel light on his feet again this preseason, showing flashes of his former self — a two-time All American who set a school record in 2015 with 13½ sacks. He, too, is becoming a favorite of his coaches and teammates, moving up the depth chart and seeing the field on nearly half of the defensive snaps against the Texans.
“It’s been up and down for me,” Davis said. “Definitely started up going into the draft, went down with the injury. Just been working my way back up. Really grateful to the Patriots for giving me this opportunity, so I’m just trying to take it and run with it.”