With the offseason workout program in the books and training camp being kicked off later this month, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with linebacker Anfernee Jennings.
Name: Anfernee Jennings
Position: Move linebacker
Jersey number: 58
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-2, 260 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Jennings entered the NFL on the second day of last year’s draft, when the Patriots invested a third-round selection (No. 87 overall) in him. Naturally, his experience as a pro is somewhat limited: Jennings has only one season on his résumé, and lived through some ups and downs along the way. But even though he only has a total of 14 games on his professional résumé so far, Jennings has already played plenty of competitive football before arriving in New England in 2020.
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 2020 season look like? Jennings heard his name called in the third round of the NFL Draft, but the former Alabama linebacker had to wait until training camp to finally get onto the practice fields with his new Patriots teammates. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, New England was forced to cancel offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp. Jennings and other first-year players therefore found themselves in a challenging situation heading into their first season as professionals.
While some such as Kyle Dugger and Michael Onwenu made the transition from college to the NFL look easy regardless of the circumstances, Jennings had a tougher time and was far more inconsistent than those two. His playing time is a reflection of that: the youngster was on the field in 14 of a possible 16 games — missing one as a healthy scratch and another due to a shoulder injury — but he actually finished the season having played only 291 of a possible 1,017 defensive snaps (28.6%).
Even though he was listed as a starter for four different games, Jennings was primarily a depth and developmental player who played more than 50 percent of snaps on just four occasions (including two of his starts). In this role, he showed some solid versatility and upside as a run defender, but was a bit hit-or-miss at setting the edge; he also had only a minimal impact in the passing game no matter if used as a disruptor up front or a coverage linebacker. Jennings very much looked like the rookie he was at times.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that his numbers also do not stand out. He registered 20 tackles on the year, with the majority coming in the running game (14). Furthermore, he had four quarterback disruptions in the form of two hits and a pair of hurries. Jennings also gave up catches on both of his targets in the passing game, surrendering a combined 12 receiving yards. He was on the field for 95 special teams snaps (of 399; 23.8%) but did not register any statistics.
What is his projected role? Jennings played primarily as an outside/edge linebacker during his final season at Alabama, but New England opted to employ him in a more versatile role as a rookie. Heading into the 2021 season, he therefore projects as an early-down move linebacker in the mold of fellow Patriots like Dont’a Hightower or Kyle Van Noy: he will see some action on the edge but also move back to an off-the-ball role. While probably not a starting-caliber player given the competition he faces, Jennings should still offer value as a rotational option.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, Jennings took the field for roughly one fourth of New England’s kicking game snaps as a rookie. Moving forward, he will likely continue to see regular snaps in a similar capacity: Jennings was used on both punt teams (return and coverage) and also saw a handful of snaps down the stretch on the kick return squad. The majority of his snaps in the game’s third phase — 67 of 95 (70.5%) — came on field goal and extra point blocking and protection teams, however.
Does he have positional versatility? Jennings had his growing pains in 2020, but the team still trusted him to play a positionally flexible role within its front seven. Despite learning the ins and outs of the system on the fly, he split time between the defensive edge as an outside linebacker and the off-the-ball positions: Jennings played 139 snaps off the line of scrimmage (47.8%), 130 on it (44.7%), and 22 more while aligning in the slot (7.6%).
What is his salary cap situation? Jennings signed a standard four-year rookie contract after getting drafted by the Patriots last spring, entering its second season with a salary cap number of $1.04 million. He is set to earn a salary of $818,949 as well as his fully-guaranteed signing bonus proration of $225,795. Since he carries one of the top 51 cap hits on the current roster, both his salary and his signing bonus are currently counted against New England’s books.
What is his roster outlook? Even though he was drafted in the third round last year, Jennings does not appear to have a set role heading into his sophomore season — especially after the Patriots added versatile linebackers Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy in free agency (they also will get Dont’a Hightower back from the opt-out list). Given the depth at linebacker, the 24-year-old will likely need a solid training camp and preseason in order to earn regular snaps within the defense. He should still make the team, but him getting consistent playing time outside of special teams is not a given.