Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s rookie class.
Name: Anfernee Jennings
Position: Move linebacker
Jersey number: TBD
Opening day age: 23
Size: 6-foot-2, 260 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Jennings arrived in the NFL on the second day of its draft in late April, when the Patriots invested the 87th overall pick in him. His experience as a pro is therefore rather limited: other than the team’s rookie developmental program and its virtual workout sessions, Jennings has not yet been able to participate in any preparatory work due to the Coronavirus pandemic forcing teams to cancel their organized team activities and minicamp practices. Still, he does have plenty of football on his résumé.
Jennings appeared in a combined 54 games during his five-year college career at Alabama — the final three of which as one of the team’s starting outside linebackers. During this time, he posted some impressive numbers: Jennings not only registered 15.5 sacks among his 118.5 combined quarterback pressures, he also intercepted a pair of passes, forced three fumbles and recovered two of them. He also scored a touchdown when he ran back one of his fumble recoveries, and was named first-team All-SEC in 2019.
What did his 2019 season look like? While his 2018 junior season was still marked by his recovery from a gruesome knee injury suffered during the 2017 playoffs, Jennings was fully healthy heading into his final year with the Crimson Tide. It showed not only because he was able to appear in all 13 of his team’s games. Jennings also returned to the form that made him one of the most intriguing linebackers in the entire SEC before he tore his PCL and also suffered artery damage as well as a blood clot.
Playing primarily on the defensive edge in 2019 but also seeing some snaps off the ball and over the interior line, he finished the season with new career marks in sacks (8.0) and quarterback hits (15) while also adding 21 additional hurries. Jennings furthermore notched 83 tackles, including 12.5 for a loss of yardage, and forced a fumble while being credited with 35 total stops in the running game. He also added to his already impressive pass-breakup statistics by registering five more of them.
No matter in which capacity the Alabama coaching staff therefore used Jennings, he performed at a high level and as a key member of one of the best defensive units in all of college football. Add it all up, and you can easily see why the fifth-year senior defender was voted to the first All-SEC team for the first time in his career — and why he entered the draft projected to hear his name called as early as one of the middle rounds.
What is his projected role? Jennings played primarily as an outside/edge linebacker during his final season at Alabama, and the belief is that he will continue to be used in a similar role in New England as well. That said, the Patriots could opt to take advantage of his positional flexibility and also employ him as an off-the-ball defender on a more regular basis than the Crimson Tide did during his final season. In this way, the youngster could help fill the void created when Jamie Collins left the club in free agency.
What is his special teams value? Whereas the aforementioned Jamie Collins played a prominent role on the Patriots’ kicking game units in 2019, Jennings is a bit tougher to project in this area. After all, he is lacking Collins’ elite athletic skillset and could thus have limited special teams value. That said, he does bring some experience to the table and could be employed on field goal and extra point units right away.
Does he have positional versatility? Jennings may have his limitations from an athletic perspective, but he has the refined technique and experience to succeed in more than just one role at the next level. The 23-year-old could line up on the edge — either as a traditional stand-up outside linebacker or a defensive end in a three-point stance — but also move back to play off the ball as an inside linebacker. Either way, he offers some intriguing flexibility for the Patriots’ coaching staff to work with.
What is his salary cap situation? One of the first members of the Patriots’ draft class to sign his rookie deal, the Alabama product agreed to a standard four-year pact with his new organization. As part of it, Jennings will hit New England’s books with a salary cap number of $835,795 — only $225,795 of which guaranteed in the form of his prorated signing bonus. For the time being, however, he is counting only $85,795 against the Patriots’ cap due to the NFL’s Top 51 rule.
What is his roster outlook? As is the case with any other third-round pick, Jennings is a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster in his rookie season. The main question will be how quickly he will be able to carve out a role on the team’s defense. Given its offseason departures — Jamie Collins left in free agency, as did fellow linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts — it would not be a surprise to see him play prominent snaps right away. While he may not become a starter early in his career, Jennings’ instincts, versatility and sound fundamentals could make him a valuable package defender.