The New England Patriots lost more than 2,500 linebacker snaps from last season with Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts leaving in free agency and Dont'a Hightower opting out.
One key replacement in 2020 is third-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley. The former fifth-round pick out of Purdue played three games as a rookie before suffering a chest injury that ended his campaign. Last season, he played just 254 total defensive snaps in 16 games, averaging a shade under 16 reps a game. His season-high 38 snaps came in Week 4 when Hightower missed the start.
Bentley will see his role increase massively in snaps and importance after the massive turnover in the LB room.
Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo isn't worried about Bentley's lack of experience in the middle of the defense.
"You lose guys like Hightower and Kyle ... Elandon ... now Bentley is really the guy as far as mentoring the younger players," Mayo said, via Tom Curran of NBC Sports Boston. "I think he's done a great job up until this point as far as his leadership ability, taking control of the huddle and all those things. I look forward to continue seeing that growth going forward. Obviously, we don't have on pads right now. It's not 100 degrees out there on a summer day, you're out there tired and all that stuff. But I look forward to seeing that development continue under strenuous situations. But just his role as far as the communicator at the second level and also just his mentorship role with the younger guys (is important)."
Mayo noted that Bentley played well in the few snaps he received in 2019 despite the crowded linebacker room.
The assistant coach believes the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Bentley brings a different element to the middle of the Patriots defense.
"Physically, he's bigger than some of those guys last year," Mayo said. "He's faster than some of those guys last year. It's more now (about) making the game slow down for him, getting more reps in practice. That's why this time right now is so important. But physically, this guy is gifted. He's a big, fast, strong linebacker, and he's a smart guy as well. I'm excited. I'm excited to give him an opportunity to be out there for a while."
The Patriots defense was on track to regress before Hightower opted out. The veteran linebacker's decision just put a stamp on that truth. Now the Pats will plow forward with young players like Bentley playing key roles on the defense.
Like with all Bill Belichick teams, the youth must swim or sink in 2020.