Leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, everyone was expecting the Patriots to draft an outside pass rusher, the outside linebacker position in the 3-4 defense. The Pats’ pass rush was anemic last season, and the team was dead last in the NFL on third down. It made sense to pick up some help, right? Not so fast. Whether it was a scheme fit issue, or the Patriots just didn’t like any of the prospects at the slot they were picking, they neglected the position until the sixth round. In his post-draft interview, Bill Belichick commented that he was satisfied with the players currently on the roster and that there were players that he expected to continue their development and improve. Belichick had to be speaking, at least partially, about last year’s second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham. Cunningham is the closest the Pats have to their prototypical pass rushing outside linebacker, and if he can avoid injury, he will likely see more snaps than the 50% he saw last season.
Cunningham missed time at the end of last season due to injuries, but he did impact some games. He was credited with 34 tackles, a sack, and two forced fumbles. His most significant play of the season came in Week 11 against the Indianapolis Colts, and it wasn’t recorded on the stat sheet. Cunningham rushed Manning (pictured above) and while he did not record a sack, his pressure, including getting a hand on Manning, forced James Sanders’ game-clinching interception. Cunningham will be counted to produce more of those plays in 2011, including getting to Peyton Manning once again when the two teams meet Week 13.
To his credit, Jermaine Cunningham has spent most of the offseason in Massachusetts training with his teammates, led by Jerod Mayo. Staying with his teammates and soaking up knowledge from Mayo will go a long way to improving his game.
“The workouts have been good; you just go out and try to get better,” Cunningham said, speaking at Joe Andruzzi’s charity golf event.
Can Cunningham take the next step and become an impact pass rusher? The lockout is not helping matters, as Cunningham, as well as just about every other player, could be benefiting from time with coaches. Once again, an overlooked element peaks its head out in terms of the lockout: the stunted development of the younger players. Whether the lockout drags out or not, Cunningham is going to need to be ready, especially if the Patriots do not pick up any help in free agency.