Anfernee Jennings is in his fourth season as a member of the New England Patriots. The Alabama linebacker was selected in the third round (87 overall) in the 2020 NFL Draft. While Jennings has contributed during his time in New England, he had not had regular role on the field with the Patriots defense. Fortunately for the Patriots, Jennings has been making the most of his opportunity.
In college, Jennings won two National Championships with the Alabama Crimson Tide. His senior year he exploded, with 8.0 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. This performance earned Jennings a spot on the first team All-SEC team. His selection by the New England Patriots set a record. It was the tenth time that the team of an NFL coach (Bill Belichick) selected a player from the same college coach (Nick Saban) in the modern NFL Draft era (1967-present). With the Patriots selections of Mac Jones and Christian Barmore in 2021, the record has since been extended to 12.
As a rookie, Anfernee Jennings saw time with both the defense and special teams’ units. With veteran Dont’a Hightower opting out of the “COVID season” and Kyle Van Noy having joined the Dolphins in the offseason, there was an opportunity for Jennings to get some snaps immediately. He ended up playing in 14 games, starting four. It was not a standout season, but it was enough to have optimism high for his second season in Foxboro.
In 2021 Jennings landed on the Injured Reserve list prior to the 53-man roster being finalized. His season was over before it ever began. He’d miss the entire year with an undisclosed injury. But instead of sulking, Anfernee Jennings found ways to improve. Jennings credited the older players in the linebacker room for these improvements. Among them were Hightower and Van Noy who had both returned to the Patriots, and current captain Ja’Whaun Bentley.
“We had a lot of veteran guys in the room that kind of took the time to break the game down to me, slow the game down from more of a mental side of it,” he explained. “I had a lot of veteran guys around me, and they kept me motivated and kept me in tune with football. That helped me out a lot.”
But the football side wasn’t the only area where Anfernee Jennings noticed improvements.
“I matured a lot on the field and off. I had a lot of time to myself, a lot of time to just reflect and just evaluate, edit my lifestyle, edit what I was doing on and off the field. Just create my identity.”
The 2022 New England Patriots team Jennings returned to now featured an All-Pro at his position in Matthew Judon. Last season also saw the emergence of his fellow 2020 draft class member Josh Uche for the Patriots. Those two combined for 26.0 sacks on the season, While Anfernee Jennings didn’t put up those types of monster numbers, he did improve greatly on his rookie season and prove he belonged in the NFL.
As a rookie Jennings had finished with 20 tackles (10 solo), two pressures, one hurry, no tackles for loss and no sacks. In 2021, he recorded 28 tackles (15 solo), 11 pressures, six hurries, one tackle for loss and 1.5 sacks. He was not fighting his teammates for a Pro Bowl spot, but the improvement was evident and encouraging.
It came as a bit of a surprise that the Patriots chose to have Jennings inactive for each of the first two games. The depth chart above him included Matthew Judon, Josh Uche, Jahlani Tavai and Marte Mapu. Rookie defensive end Keion White also occupied some of the role that Jennings was capable of filling. Finally in the third game against the Jets, Uche got his first chance of 2023. He made the most of this opportunity, recording five tackles and a QB hit in the win.
One impressed observer was New England Patriots assistant coach Jerod Mayo. “When you talk about seizing the opportunities when they present themselves, I’d say he did that this week.” The good showing would give Jennings more time on the field, as his defensive snaps have increased each of the five weeks that he has been active.
With injuries severely limited the depth at the edge for the Patriots, it is imperative that Anfernee Jennings produces. First Matthew Judon suffered a potential season-ending injury. Josh Uche and Keion White suffered injuries against the Raiders. Both players missed Sunday’s win against Buffalo. While the injuries were bad news for both the players and the team, they also presented more opportunities for Jennings to show what he can do.
In the past two games Jennings has played in 82% and then 97% of the defensive snaps, both career highs. He has 12 tackles (10 solo) and two tackles for loss. His 2023 performance has seen him set a personal best for solo tackles in a season (17) after playing in only five games. With a shorthanded unit, Jennings epitomizes the old Patriots “next man up” mantra.
Matthew Judon’s absence alone means there should be many more chances for Anfernee Jennings to prove his worth this season. Josh Uche, like Jennings, is scheduled to become a free agent in 2024. Rumors indicate Uche could potentially be moved before the NFL Trade Deadline. He will command a large salary on the open market, one which the New England Patriots may not be willing to pay.
Meanwhile, Anfernee Jennings is proving himself a very capable replacement. Now New England is asking him to be more than just a depth or role player. The Patriots need Jennings to be a true difference maker, as he has been of late. In the process, the fourth-year linebacker could be setting himself up for a very nice pay day of his own.