NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
Now three seasons removed from the 2010 NFL Draft, NEPD is looking back on the New England Patriots’ selections from that year’s draft and evaluating their successes or failure with each selection. Part three of the nine-part series, continuing each Monday, Wednesday and Friday through the NFL Scouting Combine, focuses on second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham.
The New England Patriots had three second-round picks in the 2010 NFL Draft. The one they made with their own selection — No. 53 overall pick Jermaine Cunningham, a defensive end out of Florida — has been the least productive of the trio to this point.
After two unproductive seasons to start his career, Cunningham started to carve his niche in 2012. With the Patriots having no true interior pass-rushers on its roster, the majority of Cunningham’s snaps came at defensive tackle in pass-rush situations, although he played some defensive end also.
Cunningham’s third season fell apart, however, when he was suspended four games for a performance-enhancing substance violation. He came back to play the final game of the regular season and the Patriots’ two postseason games, but did not contribute productively.
Cunningham was one of the Patriots’ most successful defensive linemen at generating pressure this season, but that is relative to the talent around him. He is not a particularly explosive pass-rusher, and only has 3.5 sacks through three NFL seasons. And although he has gotten bigger and stronger, he is not much of a factor in run defense.
Cunningham is undersized to play inside, but his ability to rush from inside while also provide depth at defensive end makes him good value at the back end of a defensive line. In a second-round pick, however, the Patriots expected him to be a starting defensive lineman, and that has not materialized.
Cunningham’s role off the bench could be largely replaced next season by Justin Francis, who came on strong late in the 2012 season as Cunningham faded, and has higher upside as a defensive end who can rush the passer from both outside and inside. Meanwhile, one of the Patriots’ top priorities in the 2013 draft should be to select a pass-rushing defensive tackle, which would also eliminate the need for Cunningham to play inside in those situations.
Barring a major spike in production, next year will likely be Cunningham’s final season with the Patriots before his contract expires in 2014. He does not project to receive considerable playing time next season unless injuries hit, which will limit his ability to have a breakout year.
For a second-round pick, Cunningham has been a disappointment.