The Patriots’ old leadership guard is either gone (Dont’a Hightower) or soon to go (Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater). With the team in something of a transition phase, some might wonder who will step up and take command of the locker room as the roster turnover continues as well as who’s taking charge aside from McCourty, Slater and David Andrews right now.
Bill Belichick talked extensively about one player who’s been quietly filling that void for some time now: veteran linebacker and captain Ja’Whaun Bentley, who learned at Hightower’s feet as he came up in the league.
“There have been some pretty strong leaders here, specifically [Dont’a] Hightower. It can be a little crowded sometimes. You want to handle things the right way, which I think he has. He’s done a really good job of that with guys like Devin [McCourty] and ‘High,’ being respectful of their position but at the same time not letting that take away from his personality and leadership ability,” Belichick said of Bentley. “The two years ‘High’ wasn’t here, this year and two years ago, you could start to see him emerge more…it’s hard to look at him and all those guys — Devin, Matt [Slater], David Andrews — you see them doing just about everything right, it’s hard for any other player to not want to follow suit.”
Belichick saying that in the media is noteworthy in and of itself. But in case you’d like to hear it from someone else, Matthew Judon, the defense’s best player, backed that up before the season started.
“[Bentley] is our leader,” Judon said back in August. “‘8’ is our leader and we’re all rallying behind him. That’s who our leader is.”
Bentley, of course, is no stranger to leadership, having been elected a captain three times in college at Purdue and earning his first NFL captaincy in 2020 with Hightower sitting out the COVID-ravaged season.
His most recent stint as captain of the Patriots came after he re-signed with the team on a two-year free-agent deal this spring after a career-best season in terms of tackles and forced fumbles (three). New England has heavily revamped its inside linebacker position with Jahlani Tavai, Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson all playing significant roles, but Bentley remains the constant amid the roster churn.
Belichick said it’s natural for players at positions like middle linebacker, center, safety and quarterback to assume leadership roles because they often have responsibilities to call plays and align their teammates, making Bentley an ideal candidate to be groomed as a locker room leader.
But the coach also named several other players who provide key voices in their respective position groups and units, including tight end Hunter Henry, Jakobi Meyers, Rhamondre Stevenson and Deatrich Wise Jr., another of the Patriots’ captains.
“Some of them are captains, some of them aren’t. … Those guys all give us leadership. It’s just not one guy,” Belichick said.
Still, if Patriots fans and pundits want to know who’s stepping up behind the scenes to help keep the team in line and playing New England’s brand of football aside from the usual suspects you hear about, Bentley might be the main men to watch.