The New England Patriots have had to deal with their fair share of injuries this season, at one point listing 20 players on their practice report last week. Among the positions hit hardest is the defensive edge.
Not only did the group lose Pro Bowler Matthew Judon to a biceps injury in Week 4, it recently also had to operate without the likes of Josh Uche (knee, foot) and Keion White (concussion). With the depth deteriorating, the Patriots had to change or increase the roles of other players on the roster.
Most prominent among those is Anfernee Jennings.
The fourth-year defender has been asked to pick up the slack ever since Judon went down. With Uche and White also temporarily joining him on the out, Jennings has grown from rotational option to three-down defender.
The change in workload did not overwhelm him, though. Quite the opposite, actually: Jennings has thrived ever since taking on a bigger role within the New England defense.
“He’s had and opportunity with some of the injuries we had at that position,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “He’s had an opportunity to play a lot, and he’s definitely stepped up.”
Jennings joined the Patriots as a third-round selection in the 2020 draft, but did not make an impact right away. His rookie campaign saw its ups and downs, and he did not take the field at all during his sophomore season.
Then, in 2022, he started to reenter the mix. Jennings saw action in 16 of 17 games, and was on the field for nearly one third of defensive snaps.
His play time did fluctuate a bit throughout the season, but he was able to carve out a regular role as an early-down run defender — one he was expected to continue to play heading into 2023. However, with the injury bug biting hard, his exposure has changed and he was asked to expand his scope.
For his position coach, DeMarcus Covington, that transition was not a worrisome one.
“Going back to last season, Anfernee Jennings, when he’s in there, he does exactly what he’s supposed to do,” he said. “He’s tough. He’s smart. He’s a guy who plays physical for us. He’s going to do his job on every single play. He’s going to leave it all out there on the field every single play. And for us, we can’t ask for more than that. When you’re looking out there, he’s giving his all and making plays and being physical in the run game, effective in the pass game — whatever we ask him to do, he’s going to do it.”
Jennings started the season on the inactives list, sitting out the first two games of the year. From that point on, however, he saw his role grow consistently.
He played 30 percent of defensive snaps against the New York Jets in Week 3, 40 the following week versus Dallas, 64 after that against New Orleans, 82 in Las Vegas in Week 6, and finally 97 percent in the Patriots’ win over the Buffalo Bills last Sunday. And while the circumstances have contributed to this steady increase, his play has as well.
“He’s a true competitor, and starting last year he did a really good job for us rotating in there,” said Covington. “This year, with the injuries to the outside linebacker position, defensive end position, now he’s stepped into a greater role and within all those guys there’s the saying, ‘Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.’ He’s always ready. He’s always ready, and I know anytime we call 3-3 he’s always going to be ready and set the tone for us. One of our true competitors.
“Can’t be more proud of him, and the man he is, and the player he is, and just the teammate he is. No matter if he’s out there for 60 snaps, or he’s out there for 15 snaps, or 30 snaps, you know you’re going to be able to count on him.”
The Patriots have shown plenty of trust in Jennings, and he has made the most out of the opportunities he ‘s been given. As Bill Belichick pointed out, that’s all it takes.
“Sometimes, hat’s what this league’s about: getting an opportunity, however that happens, and then taking advantage of it when you get it.”