Several players went down with season-ending injuries in 2021 and nearly all will be returning this year. What will their impact be on the Patriots’ season?
The Patriots had a lengthy list of injured players throughout the 2021 season. Unfortunately, a handful of those injured were exemplary parts of their side of the ball.
Now that the 2022 season is just mere weeks away, those that missed all or a majority of last season are back and (mostly) healthy. Bill Belichick even noted that the team overall is, “as healthy as it’s ever been at this time of year,”
The list of players returning is long, but some names will make a bigger impact when getting back on the field once again.
Jonathan Jones – DB
At the start of the season, Jonathan Jones was on the path to having a standout season. Before going down with a shoulder injury in week six, Jones totaled 20 combined tackles, 3 passes defended, and an interception.
Because Jones’ injury happened later in the season, he began training camp in July on the PUP list. This gave more opportunities for rookie corner Marcus Jones, and Shaun Wade to take over the snaps that would generally be Jonathan’s reps.
He would be removed from the P.U.P. list in early August and return to practice not long after. Since then, Jones has been moved all over the secondary. Despite his usual position being that of a slot corner, he’s spent time practicing on the outside.
The cornerback room is stacked as it stands, but those who can play outside corner are limited. His success covering some of the fastest receivers in the league was missed last season, and his return to the outside would be a luxury for the Patriots.
Jones may be moved around depending on the opponent. But regardless of where he plays, he makes the secondary far better when on the field.
Dalton Keene – TE
The Patriots aren’t lacking talent at the tight-end position, with both Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith on the roster. But both tight ends taken in the 2020 draft, Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi will be competing this summer to become the third man on the depth chart.
Since joining the team two years ago, Keene has only participated in six games, all of which came during his rookie season. He saw limited targets, only having three receptions for 16 yards and a lost fumble on the season. And has dealt with the injury bug hard since being drafted, including missing the entire 2021 season due to a knee injury.
As the upcoming season approaches, Keene will be competing for a roster spot. Because he doesn’t play as a traditional tight end, his position with the team remains questionable.
Throughout his college career, he displayed incredible versatility as he lined up all over the offense; from tight end to a receiver to even the backfield. Keene is yet to have the opportunity to show what he can do with the Patriots and his chance may be slimmer this year than in years past.
Because of his experience as an h-back, the thought throughout training camp has been that Keene could make his mark in that role. But with the departure of fullback Jakob Johnson in free agency, Belichick had said the team was eliminating the fullback role completely.
But with the new look, the offense is going for, Keene could be given the chance to shine. As training camp continues, it will be interesting to see what role he is given and the potential he could demonstrate to make the team.
The versatility Keene would bring to the team is intriguing, especially when thinking about what the 49ers do with a similar player in Kyle Juszczyk. If the Patriots can figure out a way to use him in that way with their new offense, Keene’s skillset could make the team that much more unique.
Raekwon McMillan – ILB
Before joining the Patriots during his first unrestricted free agency experience in 2021, Raekwon McMillan spent time the first three seasons of his career in Miami and then with the Raiders.
New England signed him to a one-year contract, and he immediately made a good impression during training camp practices. He spent time between the defense and special teams drills, demonstrating the versatility he possesses. And during one of those special teams drills in August, he would tear the ACL in his left knee, ending his season as he was placed on IR shortly thereafter.
At that point, he was yet to take the field with the team in the regular season. But Belichick liked what he had seen from McMillan, and would sign him to a one-year extension in late September.
Although he is yet to make a true impact, McMillan’s presence and production in practice have already been noticed by teammates and coaches. So much so, that linebackers coach Steve Belichick has referred to him as one of the team’s defensive leaders, along with Ja’Whaun Bentley.
For the upcoming season, McMillan will likely continue pairing up with Bentley. Or with Mack Wilson, who has also stood out at camp thus far. He will add much-needed athleticism and speed to the position which has been lacking over the last two seasons.
He’s projected to fill the role that has been left vacant since Dont’a Hightower has remained unsigned, allowing McMillan to become a starter right away.
Anfernee Jennings – OLB
The addition of Matthew Judon last season was easily one of the best free agent signings by Belichick in many years. The linebacker came in hot, taking down quarterbacks every single week and breaking records while doing so.
In the last handful of games, however, Judon’s performance significantly dropped. A lot of pressure was put on the first-year Patriot to be the most dominant force on the defense with the hopes of the rest of the line following his lead.
That didn’t happen, causing Judon to play a significant number of snaps throughout the season.
Belichick has emphasized this offseason the desire for the defense to get faster and more athletic, and so far Anfernee Jennings has shown to be just that in training camp.
Jennings was drafted 87th overall in 2020 by the Patriots but saw limited action his rookie season. The following year, he would be placed on injured reserve before the season began, ending his sophomore season before it began.
Now healthy and back in his third training camp, Jennings has stood out among the rest. Throughout the three weeks of practices, he has emerged as a top edge rusher, spending a lot of time working with the starters.
At 6-foot-3 and 259 pounds, Jennings is a big physical player who has shown he can generate a lot of pressure and find his way into the offensive backfield. He’s also succeeded as a run-stuffer, which has been a huge weakness for the team over the last several seasons.
With veteran linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins not returning, Jennings has a great opportunity this season to drastically improve this defense. He’s quickly moved up the depth chart in training camp and has proven he can be a significant factor when given the opportunity.