FOXBORO – Prior to the NFL Draft, Ja’Whaun Bentley looked like your prototypical old-school linebacker. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
At 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, he was characterized as a thumper – someone who would excel downhill against the run. A look at his draft profile on NFL.com, describes Bentley as a thin-framed linebacker with athletic limitations that would make him a liability in other areas for a defense. The scouting report had him projected as a seven-round pick or undrafted free agent.
After one preseason game, Bentley looked a whole lot better than that. In fact, the Patriots rookie looks better than most fifth-round picks that come through Gillette Stadium. He’s impressed his coaches to the point that they were inserting the linebacker alongside the likes of starters Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy in Sunday's practice.
Bentley’s had a little bit of early success this summer, but he certainly won’t let it go to his head.
“There is no comfort level. Especially with me,” Bentley said. “You really want to constantly find something you can get better at and that’s one thing as a team we take pride in here is constantly getting better. Constantly taking the next step and progressing physically and mentally.”
Although draft pundits criticized his overall game, it’s easy to see why the Patriots selected him. In college, he put up ungodly numbers on the bench press (31 reps at his pro day) to show off his strength. He was also Purdue’s first three-year captain as well as the signal caller for the Boilermakers defense.
Bentley’s strengths and smarts are already starting to pay off and that showed in his first preseason game against the Washington Redskins, where he led the Patriots with six tackles, two for a loss, and a quarterback hit. Bentley played both inside and outside linebacker last Thursday. He also donned the green dot on his helmet, which meant Brian Flores was calling in defensive plays right to him.
Bentley says he takes pride in studying his playbook and it showed.
“That’s a big part of the game – knowing the playbook, being able to grasp certain things not just for myself, but everybody,” Bentley said. “You’ve got to be able to know what things are, think fast. Think fast and you can fly. That’s something we here take pride in.”
Against Washington, Bentley first made an impact at 4:05 of the first quarter while lining up as an outside linebacker. He faked an outside rush before hitting the B-gap and delivering a hit on Redskins quarterback Colt McCoy.
The rookie also lined up at inside linebacker and made an impact against the run. At 5:20 of the second quarter, with the Redskins on the 2-yard line, Bentley made a great stop on running back Robert Kelley. The linebacker showed great patience to allow the run to develop before hitting the correct hole to stop the back for a loss of one yard.
As linebacker, Bentley will be tested in pass coverage at times and he was multiple times on the same drive in the second quarter. He showed an impressive display of skill in this area. At the 2-minute mark of the second quarter, he was able to stick with Redskins running back Byron Marshall and stop him for a 3-yard gain on a third-and-4. The play was taken away due to a penalty, but Bentley didn’t look lost in coverage, in fact the opposite.
On the very next play, Bentley ran through the line of scrimmage to stop Marshall for a loss of three. Two plays later, he was matched up with Matt Flanagan and although he allowed a catch, he stopped the tight end for a gain of seven yards – four yards shy of the first down to force a punt.
Bentley said he felt like he did well, but is focused on what he needs to improve upon.
“Me personally, I nitpick at certain things and that’s how you’ve got to be as a player just to be the best player you can be, I want to be for this team,” Bentley said. “I feel like collectively as a group, we’re doing a good job of that taking it day by day.”
He sounds like a perfect Patriot already.