Yesterday, it was announced that a second key role player on the New England Patriots would be suspended, as third-year defensive end Jermaine Cunningham will serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substances. The Patriots already saw another young player get hit with a four-game ban for PEDs in running back Brandon Bolden, but the loss of Cunningham for a key stretch of the season is undoubtedly the bigger one.
During the first half of the season, Cunningham wasn’t much of a factor overall. He had some nice pressures on the inside in sub-package roles, but he was largely subpar overall with one of the worst pass rushing productivity ratings per PFF . But Cunningham proved the Pats faith in him during the second-half of the year, and he has really come on strong recently.
In fact, he has been easily the best pass rusher on the Patriots since the bye week with Rob Ninkovich giving inconsistent displays and Chandler Jones having been injured very early on against the Indianapolis Colts. With Jones’s status still uncertain due to an ankle injury, the Pats could have a huge problem as far as pass rushing goes.
The secondary has stepped up recently, but the pass rush has digressed. Ninkovich’s sack total is misleading, because he has been incredibly inconsistent and gets shut down by more talented offensive linemen (PFF’s PRP stat also rates him poorly). With Cunningham out of the picture, that kills the depth and the Pats will have to hope that Justin Francis and Trevor Scott can step up.
Both players have looked good since receiving more playing time in recent weeks, but the pass rushing unit is going to be the biggest weakness for the Patriots during these four games. A lot of that depends on when Chandler Jones can return, and the Patriots need their star rookie RE more than ever. All eyes will be on his practice status, but the Pats will be forced to start Scott- or Francis- if he is unable to play against the Miami Dolphins.
The upcoming game against the Houston Texans is huge for the Patriots, because the Pats cannot afford to have a weak pass rusher at RE against Duane Brown, who has emerged as one of the best tackles in the NFL. Scott is a solid veteran pass rusher in a rotation, but he’s not going to be much of a factor if matched up against Brown. Hopefully Jones will be back by then, but the depth outside of the starting two is going to be hit hard without Cunningham.
It’s been impressive to see Cunningham start to come around and play at a high level behind the starters, and he has finally found his role in his third season in the NFL. The former Florida Gators standout showed a lot of potential in his first season, but a poor second season caused some fans and analysts to call for his release in the offseason. After a solid offseason and a lack of better options, Cunningham was unsurprisingly kept on the roster.
Now, who can step up in his place over the next four games? Scott was also expected to be cut by some, but he has maintained a roster spot and has played well in his return from an injury. He’s in a big spot, and I’ll have an article up on him a little bit later.
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