Ja'Whaun Bentley has always been a leader.
During his college days at Purdue, Bentley was a four-year starter and a three-year captain — a rarity at any level of college football — and throughout his tenure he was entrusted with the responsibility of serving as defensive playcaller from the middle linebacker position.
Those leadership qualities made him highly attractive to the New England Patriots, who drafted him in the fifth round (No. 143 overall) in the 2018 NFL Draft. Though Bentley hasn't been called upon to play as big a role with the Patriots as he had in college, he's demonstrated his leadership in smaller ways, carving out a niche within one of the league's top defenses while earning the trust of its veterans along the way.
"I've always taken the approach that to be a great leader you first need to be a great follower," Bentley said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "Being in college you have the opportunity to learn, when you get there you don't know everything, so you have to learn the ropes a little bit, take in as much advice and leadership qualities from those veterans, and it's the same thing in the pros."
Now, with many of those veterans playing for other teams, the third-year linebacker has an opportunity to step up and play a larger role in the team's success going forward.
Following the departures of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency, Bentley enters his third season as one of the Patriots' top returning linebackers and a favorite to start. He will be competing for playing time with free agent signee Brandon Copeland, returning veterans Shilique Calhoun, Brandon King and Terez Hall, and a stable of rookies led by top draft picks Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.
While Bentley wasn't a fixture on the field as a second-year player, seeing only 27.3% of the team's defensive snaps in 2019, he does still enter training camp having the second most snaps of a returning linebacker after Dont'a Hightower. There won't be any shortage of opportunity going forward either, considering that Van Noy and Collins each played more than 80% of New England's snaps last year.
What role Bentley plays this season remains to be seen. Van Noy and Collins played significantly more outside linebacker than Bentley has in the past, but regardless of how things play out, Bentley said he'll be ready to accept any responsibilities the coaches give him.
"I would say this year just like every year I'm looking to find a role, each guy has a role to play, we stress that a whole lot as an organization, finding a role and sticking with it," Bentley said. "So whatever that role may be this year, I'm looking to progress as well as find as many opportunities as the team needs to be filled."
That extends to his role within the locker room, where Bentley now finds himself as an "upperclassman" of sorts who will be relied upon for guidance by his younger teammates. Bentley said he learned a lot from guys like Van Noy and Collins and that their advice played a crucial role in his development, and now he's ready and willing to provide the same help for those coming up behind him.
"I definitely think being in a position where you've played for a few years and you do have knowledge, it's beneficial to share that knowledge, it's no good to have knowledge and not share it with anybody," Bentley said. "So me not being too far removed from those experiences I think I'd have a lot to offer."
Mac Cerullo can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.