With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror and training camp set to kick off later this month, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 84 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with third-year linebacker Anfernee Jennings.
Name: Anfernee Jennings
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker/Move linebacker
Jersey number: 58
Opening day age: 25
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 the 2020 draft, when the Patriots invested a third-round selection (No. 87 overall) in him. His experience at the pro level is somewhat limited, though: Jennings has spent only two seasons in the league, and lived through some ups and downs along the way. But even though he only has a total of 14 games and 20 tackles 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 2021 season look like? After seeing inconsistent opportunities on both defense and special teams during his 2020 rookie season, Jennings had to watch the Patriots make some big investments in their linebacker group during the offseason. Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy were brought aboard in free agency, with veteran Dont’a Hightower also returning off the Covid-19 opt-out list. The Alabama product therefore headed into Year 2 as part of a room that suddenly was quite crowded.
As a consequence, Jennings needed to make a positive impression in training camp to carve out a regular role. He was unable to do that, being on-again, off-again in practice due to a mystery ailment. The issue also held him out of all three of New England’s preseason contest before eventually leading to him being sent to injured reserve ahead of the NFL’s roster cutdown deadline — thus rendering him ineligible to return during the 2021 season. Jennings’ sophomore campaign never got off the ground.
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 and during his few practice opportunities in 2021. Heading into his third season in the system, he therefore projects as an early-down move linebacker in the mold of ex-Patriots Dont’a Hightower and 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 his two years in the league so far, Jennings could still offer some value as a rotational option.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though he had his growing pains in 2020, the Patriots coaching staff still trusted Jennings to play a positionally flexible role within their front seven. Despite essentially learning the ins and outs of the system on the fly due to the impact Covid-19 had on the league’s preparatory process two years ago, 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 from the slot (7.6%). A similar usage in 2022 seems entirely possible.
What is his special teams value? Jennings took the field for roughly one fourth of New England’s kicking game snaps as a rookie. Heading into his third season with the team, he will likely continue to see some opportunities on special teams: 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 action in the game’s third phase — 67 of 95 snaps (70.5%) — came on field goal and extra point blocking and protection teams.
What is his salary cap situation? Jennings signed a standard four-year rookie contract after getting drafted by the Patriots, entering its third season with a cap number of $1.23 million. He is set to earn a salary of $1.01 million as well as his fully-guaranteed signing bonus proration of $225,795. Since he carries one of the 51 biggest cap hits on the current roster, both his salary and his signing bonus are currently counted against New England’s books.
How safe is his roster spot? His draft status suggests some untapped potential, but until Jennings actually shows it on the field he is an unclear projection heading into 2022. The Patriots’ general uncertainty at linebacker and his versatility might play into his hands, though, as does the fact that New England could keep as many as nine linebackers. Jennings might therefore be able to sneak onto the roster after all, but the 25-year-old still has to start making an impression in training camp in order to find himself on the team come the regular season. Getting onto the field would be a good start after he did miss some time again during the offseason.
One-sentence projection: Jennings will be able to take the field more regularly this summer but ultimately fall short of the 53-man squad.