By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
If both of the Patriots' top rookie linebackers earned a "grade" for the season, it would be fair to say "incomplete."
There's potential for Josh Uche and/or Anfernee Jennings to grow into more valuable players for the Patriots defense, but clearly they need more than just one league year to develop. That doesn't mean that Uche and Jennings contributed nothing in 2020. But it grew frustrating over the course of a 7-9 season that neither rookie could earn substantial playing time on a depleted linebacker depth chart.
That's not necessarily their fault. Even in a year like 2020, Bill Belichick still prefers to let rookies develop as long as possible before they graduate into bigger roles. The system is too complex and multiple for most rookies to pick up in less than one full season in the NFL.
Neither Uche nor Jennings were exactly going to get the green dot. Even Dont'a Hightower had his ups and downs throughout his first two seasons, and didn't really blossom until about halfway through his third season in 2014. So patience is imperative for both of these players.
The former Michigan linebacker certainly has NFL-quality speed and athleticism, and that started to show up a little bit as the season went along. There may have been concerns about his size for the position (Patriots.com lists him at 245 pounds), but the NFL is already trending toward smaller, faster, more versatile linebackers.
Uche has already shown good speed and a good motor getting after the quarterback. He logged a sack, seven quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss in nine games, despite averaging just 19.8 defensive snaps. Arguably his best game was in Week 10 against the Ravens, when he sacked Lamar Jackson in easily the Pats' best win of the season.
He's shown impressive discipline at times, too, like maintaining gap responsibility when needed and keeping ballcarriers in front of him instead of over-pursuing. He played both inside and outside and contributed on special teams, so the Patriots have to love the versatility he's shown so early.
Belichick drafted a fairly raw athlete in Uche, but at least an NFL-caliber one. The next step is to mold him around what he can do best. Uche (and for that matter, Kyle Dugger) reflects a possible shift away from drafting less athletic players who can fill a role, and toward players who can hang with NFL talent whose roles can be determined later.
"Yeah, [we] like Josh," Belichick said in a recent video conference. "I think he’s done a lot of positive things for us in the kicking game and defensively has some versatility. We were kind of trying to figure that out early, what his best spot would be, and it took a little while for all that to materialize. He was inactive part of the year, but he’s definitely going to help us.
"He’s a good football player and we’ll be able to define his role and his situation much better next year after a year of experience with him. So, I’m looking forward to that. He’s definitely going to be an asset for us and if he continues to work and improve, he’s got a good future."
One big adjustment Uche needs to make is with availability. He both started and ended the season on injured reserve. It was obviously a different kind of year with the short-term IR. But if Uche wants to reach his ceiling, which feels decently high right now, he'll need to be available every week.
But overall, Uche is on the (short) list of young players to feel good about for the future of the Patriots.
An Alabama product who lacks the explosiveness of a prospect like Dugger or Uche, Jennings felt more like a Belichick-type prospect when the Patriots drafted him. But Jennings had a chance to prove more NFL-ready than the aforementioned Dugger or Uche in his first season, and that never materialized.
So, while it's way too early to make a sweeping judgment, it's fair to describe Jennings' rookie season as a slight disappointment. Although he was active for more games (14) than Uche, his snap counts were a yo-yo and he was a healthy scratch in Week 3 against the Raiders. And when he was on the field, impact plays were few and far between.
One area where Jennings had potential to help the Patriots was setting the edge. But clearly he wasn't ready for that, as smart, talented opponents frequently gashed the Patriots' starting defense on the edge in the run game. Jennings may eventually be able to make plays in that department, but Belichick may want to seek more immediate help to shore up that area of the defense for 2021.
Jennings' rookie warts showed up egregiously on one occasion. He made one of the Patriots' few bad mistakes in their 45-0 win over the Chargers in Week 13, forgetting to touch his opponent down after a catch. He will need to learn those subtle changes from college to the NFL and correct those mistakes if he wants Belichick to even put him on the field.
To be fair, Jennings may very well have learned after that one. It's ultimately a nitpick. But it's also an illustration of where he's at in his development. Like most rookies, particularly here, he will need more time to approach the veterans' level of understanding of the defense and how to play at this level.
What's The Future Look Like?
As reflected in their draft positions, scouting reports, and performance as rookies, Uche clearly has a higher ceiling than Jennings, in New England or anywhere. Uche's ability to learn and play a multitude of roles, and to do that consistently, will determine how often he plays in 2021 and beyond. But he absolutely has good upside.
Jennings, meanwhile, looks like he is going to take a little longer than expected to grow into an impact player, if he does get there. He wasn't projected to be a dynamic pass-rusher at the NFL level, so unless that changes, Jennings will need to prove he can improve the Patriots' run defense to get regular snaps as soon as his second year.
If Belichick doesn't make a major move in free agency or the trade market for a linebacker, these are the kids he will lean on more heavily next season.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].