Some members of the New England Patriots’ 2020 NFL Draft class can’t even get on the field playing one position. Third-round pick Anfernee Jennings has impressed enough in recent weeks to take on two roles.
Jennings, who has prototypical size for a Patriots linebacker at 6-foot-3, 259 pounds, has played extensive snaps as an edge defender and off-ball linebacker in New England’s last two games. And that’s no small feat, especially for a rookie.
“Yeah, it takes a lot of work,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Friday. “It’s really hard to play one, and to play both takes a good level of instinctiveness and both mental and physical versatility because the skill sets are quite different between playing off the ball and only a few inches away from a good blocking tight end or a good receiving tight end. So, those are challenges.
“Jennings did both those things at Alabama. He also is a very, very good communicator and signal-caller and had roles on third down, as well. So, he had quite a bit on his plate in college, and I think that the volume of what he has now is certainly manageable, maybe a little bit more. But, he’s a good football player with, as I said, some versatility and ability to do some different things. We’ll continue to try to see where he fits in our defensive scheme and game plan on a weekly basis.”
Jennings certainly isn’t the first Patriots linebacker to take on those multiple roles, but it does put him in the same category as players like Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Mike Vrabel and Kyle Van Noy.
Belichick said just last week that rookies are “further behind” than ever because of some of the practice restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no organized team activites or minicamp practices, plus preseason was canceled and training camp was shortened.
But Jennings isn’t your average rookie.
“Anfernee is far beyond rookie status mentally, and I think that’s the beautiful thing,” Patriots linebacker Brandon Copeland said Friday.
The defense Jennings played in at Alabama under head coach Nick Saban is more complex than the typical college system. So, his learning curve was lower as he transitioned to the pros.
“I’m still picking it up, still learning,” Jennings said. “I think what helped me a lot is just playing in the system that I played in at ‘Bama. It was a multiple defense and you could make all kinds of different adjustments and just continue to do a lot of different things. And just be able to be versatile and just being a smart player. And just getting in where I fit in and making the most of every snap that I get in.”
Jennings’ goal is to continue to gain the trust of his teammates and coaches. He’s well on his way after earning his first career start Sunday.
“Some of our younger players started off the season, and in a couple of cases they played because more out of necessity, but as they gain experience and we gain confidence in them and they’ve been able to string repeated good efforts together on the practice field or in some game opportunities, that’s led to more opportunities,” Belichick said. “Jennings’ situation is similar to a lot of other players in his position that as they get the opportunity and they show that they can be productive and help the team, then that’s going to lead to more.”
Jennings has five tackles in four games with one start so far this season. He also has generated two pressures as a pass rusher.