The New England Patriots’ defensive front seven suffered some considerable losses over the course of the offseason, especially at the linebacker position: versatile chess-pieces Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins left the organization as unrestricted free agents, with the departure of rotational off-the-ball defender Elandon Roberts also hurting the team’s depth. The Patriots acted swiftly to bolster the position, however, and selected three linebackers in last month’s draft.
One of them is Anfernee Jennings. The Alabama product was picked in the third round by the Patriots and projects to fit well into their defensive scheme due to his combination of experience, football IQ, and positional versatility. While he may not offer the same impressive athletic skillset as fellow Day Two draft pick Josh Uche, he could very well make an early impact on a Patriots defense that will need to replace what both Van Noy and Collins brought to the table in 2019.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at some film to get a better impression of Jennings.
As noted above, Jennings is not as impressive an athlete as other members of the Patriots’ draft class (see: Josh Uche, Kyle Dugger). That said, he does have the build — he was measured at 6-foot-2, 256 pounds at the scouting combine in February — as well as adequate abilities such as length and playing strength, as well as nimbleness, to find success at the next level even without some truly elite traits.
The following clips illustrate this, and show where Jennings’ (#33) strengths and weaknesses from a purely athletic perspective lie:
Here's my All-22 breakdown of Bama LB Anfernee Jennings! ❤️ this pick— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2020
Long, strong, heavy, and surprisingly nimble chess piece. At his best when his hand placement lands and he can slip blockers to apply pressure. Usually gets home with effort due to some lower body tightness pic.twitter.com/09kgu4P6eP
The first play (0:00) came against Texas A&M, with Jennings aligned in a three-point stance outside Aggies left tackle Dan Moore Jr. (#65). The new Patriot shows some solid burst out of his stance, and uses his arms well to keep a healthy distance between himself and the blocker in front of him. While he is not the most fluid player due to some lower-body tightness, Jennings’ effort in combination with a feel for using his frame — as shown on this play — has regularly helped him make plays for the Crimson Tide as a pass rusher.
The 87th pick of this year’s draft may have some athletic limitations stemming from his lack of explosiveness and quickness, and therefore a lower ceiling than some of the higher-selected front seven players this year, but he has shown that he can work around them a) with his natural feel for play development and b) if put in favorable positions by the coaching staff. Speaking of which...
The Patriots appear to be building a positionless defense, and Jennings would fit well into this plan: he can effectively line up all over the defensive front, play on or off the ball, stand up or put his hand in the dirt, and contribute not just on defense but in the kicking game as well. In short, he offers tremendous versatility for the team to work with. His functional strength and anchor allows him to do that, and to find success against different types of assignments:
Jennings bolsters this draft class' theme of awesome versatility.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2020
He can line up anywhere in the Patriots' defensive front and fill any role from rushing inside with his menacing length to spying some QBs. Great functional strength and anchor to hold up vs different types of OL pic.twitter.com/jn9oE49mfN
The first play (0:00) shown here, again versus Texas A&M, sees Jennings rush the passer from a 4i-technique over the inside shoulder of right tackle Carson Greene (#54). The next two plays (0:11 and 0:18) have him line up in the same basic spot but in a two-point stance, and being asked to spy on quarterbacks Kellen Mond (#11) and Joe Burrow (#9): Jennings initially fakes the forward motion each time, only to drop back into an underneath zone while consistently keeping an eye on his assignment.
As can be seen on other clips in here, Jennings was also asked to attack from both sides of the formation and to drop back into coverage on a regular basis at Alabama. There are limitations to what he can do from an athletic perspective — his lack of suddenness prohibits him from consistently running with backs or tight ends in one-on-one situations — but he still gives New England a tremendously versatile moving piece in light of Van Noy’s and Collins’ free agency departures.
The most advanced part of Jennings’ game entering the NFL might just be his ability to set a hard edge in the running game. Him being able to dominate on the ground against good college competition in the SEC foreshadows a promising future in a New England defense that places a high value on fundamentally sound football from its edge defenders. Jennings therefore projects to play a prominent role as a rotational strong side linebacker in the mold of fellow Patriot John Simon.
Jennings' dominance vs the run against good college competition foreshadows a promising future holding down NE's strong side for years— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2020
Blocking him with a TE is pretty much a death sentence bc of his arms and power. Threw around one of the best blocking TE prospects in years pic.twitter.com/Pi2s1uu9tC
The first two plays (0:00 and 0:07) see Jennings lined up on the other side of arguably the best run-blocking tight end to enter the draft this year, LSU’s Thaddeus Moss (#81). Both times, Jennings was able to successfully stand his ground due to some solid lower-body power and impressive hand usage: Moss failed to push the defender back twice, with Jennings getting inside position on the second play after just slightly being able to expose the tight end’s leverage.
On the third play (0:12), he does the same only while going against LSU left tackle Saahdiq Charles (#77), a fourth-round selection in this year’s draft. Rushing from a 9-technique position, Jennings engages quickly but is able to hold his ground and toss Charles aside to stop running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (#22) from getting to the perimeter. When Edwards-Helaire cut back to the inside, Jennings’ length and solid wrap-up technique allowed him to make the quick tackle.
While the 23-year-old will go against superior talent at the NFL level, he showed that he can successfully set the edge in the running game and make impact plays due to his natural strength and hand placement. His foundation as a run defender certainly is a strong one.
Jennings does have his limitations dropping into coverage, as noted above, and it can lead to him getting a bit grabby at the top of routes and when forced to quickly flip his hips to change direction. That said, he did look comfortable when asked to move back and showed that he can run stride-for-stride with tight ends in the vertical game:
Comfortable dropping into coverage and ran stride for stride vertically with TEs from on the line, tho he does get grabby when forced to flip his hips quickly.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 27, 2020
Gets good depth in zone and wingspan narrows throwing lanes.
Think his ceiling in coverage is similar to Bentley's pic.twitter.com/7QuAAy8dUT
As can be seen, Jennings has a good feel for the depth of his spot-drops (0:24 and 0:32), and also is capable of passing off his assigned players when playing zone (0:00). He also has the natural attributes to narrow throwing lanes either when dropping back or when simply not being able to get home on pass rushing attempts: according to the Pro Football Focus 2020 NFL Draft Guide, Jennings was able to bat down 11 passes over his final two seasons at Alabama.
As for his coverage skills, his upside appears to be somewhat limited due to his lack of outstanding movement skills. That said, he can develop into a Ja’Whaun Bentley-like defender for the Patriots when asked to drop back: he may not be able to go one-on-one against every tight end or running back in the league, but he can successfully man his underneath zones and hold his own when asked to cover vertically.
Room for growth
Jennings generally plays a technically sound game, but that does not mean he has no room for growth in this area. Hand usage in particular is where he can still get better, and working with a player like fellow outside linebacker John Simon should help him improve the parts where he is still lacking heading into the next level: Jennings sometimes does not appear to have a plan when attacking downhill, or is off-target with his strikes and grabs.
This is exacerbated when he gets a slow start due to misdirection concepts being run by the offense:
Hope Jennings spends a lot of time learning from John Simon and his textbook hand use.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 27, 2020
Sometimes he lacks a plan or his strikes/grabs are off target and hurt his rush. This is exacerbated when he gets a slow start bc of play action. pic.twitter.com/2LuzkH2Szr
On both plays illustrated here (0:00 and 0:08), LSU quarterback Joe Burrow is able to almost freeze Jennings by faking a hand-off. While this cautious approach to attacking the pocket allows the young defender to hold down the fort in case the football does get handed off, it limits his impact in pass-rushing situations — especially in combination with his usually solid but not outstanding get-off out of his stance. Jennings can counter by improving his hand usage and making life difficult for blockers even when not attacking them at full speed.
All in all, though, the Alabama product does bring Day One starting potential to the table thanks to his SEC-pedigree in combination with a high football IQ and quick diagnosing skills, good play strength, and the versatility to line up all over the formation. He is naturally not on the same level as long-time veterans Kyle Van Noy or Jamie Collins, but he does offer some of the same traits and has proven himself a high-motor player capable of winning through effort and technique.