After looking a step slow [and perhaps a bit long-in-the-tooth, at times] last season, the New England Patriots are ready to get faster on defense in 2022.
Particularly at linebacker.
Though the Pats headed into both free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft with clear need along the depth chart, the team chose not to prominently address the position. Aside from trading for former Cleveland Browns linebacker Mack Wilson, New England was surprisingly quiet in the linebacker market.
In terms of improvement at the position, the Pats apparently prefer it to come from within the unit.
While looking outside of the organization is a smart strategy, few franchises value ‘promoting from within’ than the Patriots. After all, ‘next-man-up’ is practically part of the lexicon at One Patriots Place in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Fortunately for the Pats, some of their most versatile athletes, capable of infusing the velocity for which the team is searching, reside on their linebacker depth chart.
One such player is third-year linebacker Anfernee Jennings.
Selected by the Patriots in the third-round (87th overall) in the 2020 NFL Draft, Jennings is a stout run-defender who adequately sets the edge and is an adept tackler. He is an average pass-rusher, but he has an underrated combination of quickness, change-of-direction ability, power and instincts. A product of the coach Nick Saban-led Alabama Crimson Tide, Jennings finished his collegiate career with 194 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and 20 passes defensed in 54 games.
Despite an impressive on-field resume, Jennings’ most prominent strengths are, perhaps, his toughness and tenacity. Unfortunately, he has had limited time with which to showcase his best traits. After suiting up for 14 games in his rookie season [in which he combined for 20 tackles], he spent the entirety of 2021 on injured reserve with an undisclosed injury.
By all accounts, Jennings is entering 2022 healthy and ready to contribute. As such, he expected to compete for a roster spot as a strong-side, on-ball linebacker. Of course, he could play off the ball, as well, if necessary. With the departure of former Pats linebacker Kyle Van Noy, Jennings projects to play the strong-side edge against the run game, while also moving around the second level. The Patriots will need to help him develop more pass rush moves to be more effective in that role. Still, he could work his way into the rotation given his experience.
In turn, New England will undoubtedly be keeping watch on Jennings health. In addition to the injury which sidelined him last season, he suffered a significant knee injury in 2018, which lessened his athleticism some. He also weathered through a shoulder injury during his rookie campaign in New England. Therefore, the Patriots will need to monitor that closely.
Jennings also faces significant competition for earning a roster spot in 2022, whether he plays on or off the ball. Incumbents such as Uche, second-year linebacker Cameron McGrone and veteran Raekwon McMillan have all been highly-touted in the limited sample action they have seen during OTAs and minicamp. Hybrid safeties Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers are also expected to align at linebacker at various points throughout the season. Though Jennings is firmly in the mix for the job, he will have to perform at an equal or higher level than many of his talented teammates to earn it.
Ultimately, Jennings must prove himself reliable enough to become what the Patriots need most — an impact player in the middle of their defense who can provide the type of sideline-to-sideline coverage needed to neutralize the high-speed receivers, running backs and quarterbacks within their Division, as well as the Conference. His experience in a Saban-system defense, combined with his skill as strong edge defender may give him an edge among his teammates.
With his window of opportunity to make an impression on New England’s coaching staff rapidly closing, Jennings will be among the most fun players to watch during 2022 training camp, as well as the preseason.