NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
With the 53rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, the New England Patriots nabbed Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham. The 6’3”, 255-pounder was the first of three Gators to be selected by New England that April, and with good reason. Coached by Urban Meyer down in Gainesville, Cunningham was seen as a leader, a pure edge-rusher and an NFL-ready competitor due to his three years of starting experience.
Cunningham’s rookie impact was on par with second-round linebacker Brandon Spikes and fourth-round tight end Aaron Hernandez — his college teammates. He started 11 of 15 contests as an outside linebacker in the Patriots’ old 3-4 base defense. And he racked up 34 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles as well as a pass breakup in the process.
Expectations were high heading into Cunningham’s second NFL campaign. But when Bill Belichick and Co. transitioned the Patriots to a 4-3 scheme, it moved Cunningham back his college position. Yet with the likes of experienced ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson ahead of him on the depth chart, Cunningham found himself without a role. Cunningham’s 2011 campaign was over after nine games, as he landed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. No. 96 played primarily on special teams and recorded one tackle.
It was a lost year of development. As a result, there was a lot of speculation that the former Day 2 draft choice wouldn’t even make the roster in 2012. Although, following a strong minicamp, training camp and preseason — which was capped off by a two-sack performance against the New York Giants — Cunningham was back in Belichick’s good graces.
He secured his place on the 53-man roster. And he even secured a forte: situational pass-rusher. Cunningham played in the first 11 games, notched 23 tackles and even 2.5 sacks. According to Football Outsiders, he had logged 427 snaps; only four of which were on special teams. He was utilized outside at end and inside as an undersized defensive tackle, which helped give the interior some explosiveness.
That said, his own explosiveness came to a screeching halt on Nov. 26. The Patriots announced that Cunningham had been suspended four games for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. After a one-month hiatus, he returned in time for the regular season finale. Except by then, fellow reserve D-linemen Justin Francis and Trevor Scott, who had assumed more responsibilities in his absence, continued to do so. The time missed had taken its toll. Cunningham played a total of 53 snaps from Week 17 through the AFC Championship Game. He wasn’t as productive, either, registering just two tackles in those three face-offs.
And just like that, Cunningham’s third professional season had ended. Now, only one year remains on his rookie contract. So it goes without saying that a strong fourth season is vital for the 25-year-old Georgia native.
If Cunningham latches onto a roster spot once again this August, it will be because he re-carves a niche for himself. Does he have what it takes to do so? Has he shown enough flashes in the past to believe he has more promise in his future?
In search of answers, I re-watched three of Cunningham’s games from last season. And to gather a thorough sample size, I assessed one tilt from September, one from November and one from December.
Let’s vet him.
Week 1 versus Tennessee Titans — Three Tackles, Sack
- Enters the game on third down and lines up as the right defensive end in a 3-4 front. With Chandler Jones playing the “Elephant” off his right shoulder, Cunningham gets good pressure inside against the Tennessee left guard.
- Subs in for Rob Ninkovich as the left end in a 3-4. Beats the right tackle to the edge and chases down Darius Reynaud with the help of Jones for no gain.
- Aligned as the right defensive tackle playing the five-technique in a 4-3, Cunningham cuts inside to battle the center. Despite a good first step, he doesn’t get enough leverage to get into the backfield.
- Moves to left defensive tackle in a 4-3, gets a great jump, slips right through the B-gap and sacks quarterback Jake Locker for a seven-yard loss. It took less than three seconds for Locker to go down.
- Sets up as the right defensive tackle, breaks through the A-gap, gets held by the left guard as Locker scrambles out. He would have been able to hit the QB if he wasn’t arm-locked.
- Stand-up linebacker off left edge, breaks off right guard and gets a hand on Chris Johnson as he goes off tackle. But he lunges and falls short of bringing the halfback down.
Week 10 versus Buffalo Bills — Tackle, Sack
- Cunningham filters in next to Vince Wilfork in a two-down set with stand-up ends playing outside the tackles. Cunningham dances with the right guard, tries the C-gap and then B-gap, eventually knifing inside. Forces quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to scramble out and dump the pass off.
- Playing the three-tech, Cunningham disengages from blocks and drops back into coverage, swinging out in front of an evading Fitzpatrick. Consequently, Ninkovich has time to bring the QB down from behind for a sack.
- Subs in as right end in a 4-3, proceeds to run a stunt inside but runs into his own man and gets twisted out of the play.
- Squares off with left guard Andy Levitre. It’s not a battle Cunningham wins, as Fitzpatrick has plenty of time to step into the pocket.
- With his hand in the dirt as a three-technique in a 4-3, Cunningham pulls back before bull-rushing the center and sacking Fitzpatrick for a six-yard loss.
- Once again at three-tech, Cunningham gets brushed inside as Spiller carries the ball outside.
Week 17 versus Miami Dolphins — Tackle
- Francis sees reps on the inside, where Cunningham worked heavily before the suspension.
- In a 4-3, Cunningham sets up in a three-point stance over the Miami right guard. He gets knocked back after the snap, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill scampers up through the defensive void because of it. Cunningham does manage to free himself, pursue Tannehill and wrap him up by the legs after an eight-yard gain.
- Ninkovich leaves game with injury in second quarter and is replaced by Francis and Scott.
Charting Cunningham’s progression is a challenge. He’s a player who shows a lot of upside. He’s a Swiss army knife who can set up shop at outside linebacker, defensive end or defensive tackle. He is no stranger to the three-tech, the five-tech or even the seven-tech.
But can he make his mark playing at all of those spots?
Cunningham will have to regain a specialty next season since there are new defensive ends in the mix aiming to give him a run for his money. He didn’t conclude last season on the right note, and he’s not in the mold of a prototypical Patriots defensive end, either. Due to that, he seems to be best implemented in hybrid sub packages.
What’s interesting about Cunningham’s 2012 season is that his 2.5 sacks all came from rushing the inside of the line. None were a byproduct of running the arc or breaking past the outside shoulder of offensive tackles. While he might have started some plays off the bookend, his cuts inside were what paid dividends.
New England needed to get more pressure from the interior. Cunningham got it. Nevertheless, newcomers Armond Armstead and Tommy Kelly are seen as penetrating defensive tackles built to stay on the field versus the run. Cunningham is a different kind of player with far less sand in his pants. He will have to prove himself more so as an end this summer.
There’s an abundance of energy in Cunningham’s game. If he can find a position to consistently showcase it, then he’ll be a factor in 2013. For now, it appears that his duties will be largely dictated by the moving parts around him.
Tags: Jermaine Cunningham