When the New England Patriots turned to Anfernee Jennings in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft, Nick Caserio turned to the Alabama product’s experience, versatility and strength.
“This kid is a really tough, tough kid,” the former director of player personnel said that spring. “… Jennings has a background playing a couple different spots. Really tough, good leadership.”
A redshirt senior All-SEC selection who went No. 87 overall, Jennings now finds himself back in the conversation in his third training camp. The linebacker had been excused from the start of his second due to the death of his grandfather. He was then placed on injured reserve due to an undisclosed ailment at the league’s 53-man roster deadline last August.
A season of reflection followed. It was the first time that Jennings could recall not playing football in 17 years.
“Last year before camp started, I lost my grandfather, probably one of the biggest inspirations in my life,” Jennings told reporters after Wednesday’s padded practice. “Just always reminiscing and thinking about how he loved this time of the year. Just being able to be back out there this year, that kind of helped out a lot and grew my love of football. Every day I’m out here, I’m grateful and thankful for the opportunity.”
The opportunity for Jennings, whose Tuscaloosa career spanned 54 games, 194 tackles, 15.5 sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles, remains at age 25. He credited guidance from members of New England’s 2021 linebacker room, including free agent Dont’a Hightower, a fellow Crimson Tide standout who texted him before camp began.
“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,” the 6-foot-3, 259-pound Jennings said. “So I took that time and kind of developed mentally. Obviously being away from the game and working out all the time, that helps physically. But 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.”
Jennings appeared in 14 games, starting four, during his rookie season in New England. He recorded 20 tackles while playing 28% of the defensive downs. Pro Football Focus credited him with seven combined quarterback pressures and a 71.4 grade against the run along the way.
The two-time national champion is now off the edges on a multiple depth chart that includes the likes of 2020 second-rounder Josh Uche, 2021 third-rounder Ronnie Perkins and perennial Pro Bowler Matthew Judon. A core role on special teams, where 96 plays were logged as a rookie, could also be in the cards.
“The big thing with Anfernee is he’s out there,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said during his Wednesday press conference. “So, he’s been out there every day. He’s working. Of course, if you’re working, you’re improving. It’s good to have him out there and he’s made progress every day. He’ll get some good opportunities coming up in the near future, along with some other guys in that position, and we’ll see how it turns out. But it’s good to have him out there.”
New England’s preseason opener against the New York Giants is set for Aug. 11. The 7 p.m. ET kickoff at Gillette Stadium will mark Jennings’ first official snaps in 19 months.
“Man, I just, I kind of matured,” Jennings said of his year on injured reserve. “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.”