Anfernee Jennings, a third-round draft pick by the New England Patriots, is considered a versatile linebacker who has been compared to another former University of Alabama player who became a star for the Patriots – Dont’a Hightower. Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

The script was written. Anfernee Jennings seemed destined to find a home wearing the Flying Elvis on his helmet.

From just about every significant angle, the third-round rookie linebacker screamed Patriot.

His most frequent NFL comparisons?

A toss-up between Kyle Van Noy, Trey Flowers and John Simon.

His often-stated Alabama alumni comparison?

Dont’a Hightower.

That quartet has certainly worked out for the Patriots. All of them were tailor-made in Bill Belichick’s system.

Need more?

It’s well-known that Belichick’s pal, Nick Saban, was Jennings’ head coach at Alabama. The two have had a four-decade long friendship, which was depicted in the HBO documentary: “Belichick & Saban. The Art of Coaching.”

Surely, Saban pumped up Jennings during at least one of their many conversations.

Then there’s Jennings’ position coach, Sal Sunseri. His son, Vinnie, a former graduate assistant at Alabama, just joined the Patriots staff as an assistant coach. Needless to say,, the dots can be connected on so many fronts.

Only there was a time not so long ago when Jennings wasn’t thinking about having the planets align for him to join the Patriots. At one point, he was thinking about a possible life without football.

Two years ago, Jennings was forced to consider never playing again. The way he persevered and dealt with the situation merely adds to his resume.

Jennings had suffered a catastrophic knee injury that nearly resulted in a leg amputation. He was on the receiving end of a leg whip during the 2018 Sugar Bowl national semifinal against Clemson that resulted in a PCL tear. If that wasn’t bad enough, the tear also caused damage to the artery in his left leg and produced a blood clot.

Doctors were able to diagnose and treat the injury quickly before amputation was necessary. Still, the recovery and accompanying rehabilitation was no picnic.

But the linebacker not only came back from that injury, he returned to play some of his best football with the Crimson Tide.

Richard White, his former high school football coach, kept in touch with Jennings through that difficult time. Watching the NFL Draft on TV and hearing Anfernee’s name announced, White couldn’t help but feel both a sense of elation and relief. He knew Jennings’ football journey, one that had its roots at Dadeville High in Alabama, had come full circle.

“I was excited and proud for him,” said White. “He’s a hard-working kid who deserves everything he’s got.”

White had a first-hand view of what Jennings overcame, having visited his former linebacker in the hospital.

“That was a very devastating injury. He could have very easily said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore. It’s not worth it.’ But he’s just so driven,” said White. “Along with the help of the training staff at Alabama, he was able to get back and get back healthy. He worked hard to rehabilitate and come back from that type of injury.

“That’s a story in itself,” White added. “It’s just a tribute to his hard work and dedication.”

Just from observing Jennings over time, and seeing his attitude at the outset of his recovery, White knew his former high school standout was going to make it back.

“He was never down. He was very encouraging,” said White. “He told me, ‘I’m going to come back.’ When he says something like that, I’d bank on it. And once (the blood clot) was OK, I knew right then, with this young man, he’ll make a comeback and be fine.”

Jennings worked his way back to start all 15 games for Alabama during the 2018 season. He had 51 tackles (14 for loss), 6.5 sacks, and a team-high 11 pass breakups. As a senior team captain in 2019, he earned first-team All-SEC honors after a career-high 83 tackles, 12 of which came in the backfield and eight of which were sacks.

“The last two years, I learned a lot about patience and working hard and dealing with adversity and know that you can overcome anything you put your mind to and work at,” Jennings told the media after being drafted, later adding, “I knew it would be possible (to reach the NFL after getting hurt). I just knew that it would take a lot of hard work, a lot of battling back and working hard, just believing in myself and doing what I had to do with everything that the coaches asked me to do, the trainers and everybody around me.

“I knew I could be back and even better. I’m here, and I’m glad to be a part of the Patriots organization and thankful.”

Jennings and White believe the linebacker is already ahead of the curve because the Patriots defense is similar to Alabama’s.

“He’ll be a great fit. He’ll understand the ins and outs of what they’re trying to do,” said White. “He’ll fit right in with them.”

White wasn’t alone in that assessment. Not long after the Patriots added Jennings to their draft haul, several noted draft pundits applauded the pick.

On his podcast, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. pointed out why he thought it was a perfect marriage between team and player.

“He will (thrive under Belichick) … he’s smart, very instinctive,” said Kiper. “He plays within the scheme very well. That’s why you see him not necessarily disrupting every play. That’s not his role on every play. He diagnoses screen passes. You can see him sift through trash and get to the ball carrier. He’s a very slippery player, a very smart player.

“Whatever he was asked to do within the framework of that defense, he did. He wasn’t always flashy, just when he needed to be. When he needed to get a sack, he could. He’s an all-around player who was a really good pick for New England.”

NFL Network’s Charles Davis is another who believes the fit is right. He wasn’t surprised where Jennings ended up. He just threw him in the pot with all the other versatile defensive players Belichick has brought in over the years.

“He can rush the passer off the edge, so he has some of that Dont’a Hightower in him. He’s got those heavy-type hands that help set an edge with a blocker,” said Davis. “He just has that versatility you’re looking for. He can probably put his hand in the ground and rush, and stand up and drop into coverage when you need to, and swing inside when you want him to.

“Typical Patriot pick,” Davis added, “seeing multiple opportunities and options inside of one package. And that one package is a good player.”

Davis also tossed out Mike Vrabel’s name when watching tape of Jennings. His game smacks of Vrabel.

“He’s like the old Sam linebacker, kind of like what Vrabel used to be,” said Davis. “Just get over the tight end, beat the heck out of him, and good luck getting off the line of scrimmage.”

Ideally, Jennings, at 6-foot-2, 256 pounds, will play outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment. Belichick could move him around like he did with Van Noy, but replacing the latter is a tall order for anyone right away, given Van Noy’s versatile skill set.

The plan will likely be for Chase Winovich (a 2019 third-rounder) to jump in and get more opportunities, given he offers a high-upside as a pass rusher. Jennings, like Michigan linebacker Josh Uche, a second-round pick, might be employed more on a situational basis, like Winovich in 2019.

Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, took it a step further. He described Jennings as having the type of traits that could very well have him leading the Patriots defense in due time.

“Anfernee’s very similar to a Dont’a Hightower profile; bigger linebacker, edge setter, has pass rush, comes downhill, physical, alpha of that Alabama defense the past two years,” said Nagy. “(He) really has leadership, and high, high football character.”

Having the fortitude and determination to overcome the injury, playing his best football after the fact, being driven to succeed, being self-motivated and “all-business,” as his high school coach also described, it’s easy to see why both Saban and Belichick gravitated toward the young man.

“I can understand why Bill took him because everyone (at Alabama) has been raving about this kid for the last couple years in terms of what he means to the program,” said Nagy, “and I’m sure Nick (Saban) and Bill talk quite a bit. That one makes a lot of sense. Anfernee’s a pro. He’s really mature for his age. He drove himself (to the Senior Bowl).”

And impressed everyone around him.

“There’s just no frills about the kid. He showed up, dressed well, just treated it like a business trip. And he’s done a lot of things (at Alabama),” said Nagy. “He can play stacked, he can play on the line, he can rush. He’s a good edge-setter, he’s physical. That just seemed to me like a real Patriots-type pick.”

Just put Jennings’ picture in the Patriots dictionary after “draft pick prototype.” It’s a constant theme with any discussion about the linebacker. And that should suit him well.

He was one of nine players from Alabama taken in the draft. Four went in the first round, three in the second, two in the third. Most were overshadowed by Tua Taglovailoa and where the quarterback would end up. But many of Tua’s teammates also have compelling stories, Jennings being no exception.

The Patriots rookie managed to earn two college degrees – graduating with a bachelor’s in exercise science in December 2018, and in public health a year later.

As high school coach White pointed out, Jennings has always been driven to succeed in whatever mission he’s trying to complete.

“He has a lot of good qualities, but the most important quality is he’s serious about what he’s doing,” said White. “He takes what he does very seriously. He’s committed. Off the field, he’s a meek and mild guy, and as humble a guy as you’ll ever be around. He’ll do anything for you. But when he walks on the football field, it’s all business.”

During the recent conference call, Jennings indicated Hightower, who was an All-American for Alabama in 2011, reached out to welcome him to the Patriots. By the sound of it, Jennings, who has already agreed to his four-year rookie deal, is already into the process.

“I’m just thankful for this opportunity,” he said. “I can’t wait to get to Foxborough and get to work.”


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