Pop quiz: based solely on his college career, which quarterback do you wish the New England Patriots had?
Player A is Lamar Jackson, who the Patriots passed on in the 2018 NFL Draft twice for Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel (but no complaints about the Michel selection here).
Player B is Malik Cunningham, who went undrafted in 2023 and signed with the Patriots as an undrafted rookie free agent.
As of Tuesday, Cunningham is past tense in New England, as the Baltimore Ravens signed Cunningham off the Patriots’ practice squad to backup Jackson.
In the end, Cunningham’s Patriots career ends without a single regular season pass attempt. While it’s easy to say Cunningham never played, so New England didn’t lose anything, it’s worth wondering if we don’t know what the Patriots lost because they didn’t keep him as a quarterback.
Malik Cunningham was an intriguing talent that the New England Patriots didn’t find the best use for him
Rookie free agents usually don’t draw much attention, but Cunningham was an exception. He was a productive player out of Louisville who had the daunting task of following in Jackson’s footsteps and performed very well despite playing in the Heisman Trophy winner’s shadow.
Cunningham wasn’t Jackson’s equal as a Cardinal, but he finished his career with a higher completion percentage, higher QB rating, and more total touchdowns. His accomplishments weren’t enough, though, as Cunningham didn’t have his name called during the draft.
Converting Cunningham into a WR was a strange way to show Jakobi Meyers remorse. The difference was Meyers was already a converted WR. Doing the same with Cunningham would take at least a year.
He had no shortage of calls after the draft, though. Cunningham was one of the top undrafted players available. Ultimately, the Patriots made the winning bid, signing Cunningham to a $200,000 contract with a $30,000 signing bonus, a record for a New England undrafted free agent.
And then tried to turn Cunningham into a wide receiver, as if Bill Polian ran the front office.
That’s a strange way to show Jakobi Meyers remorse. The difference was that Meyers had already been converted into a receiver by the time he left NC State. Doing the same with Cunningham would take at least a year with Cunningham.
Based on what we saw, Cunningham struggled as a receiver. Through three preseason games, he had just one reception for minus one yard.
But when Cunningham debuted as a quarterback against the Houston Texans, it was tantalizing. He was 3-of-4 for 19 yards passing and added 34 rushing yards on five attempts, with a nifty nine-yard dash up the middle for a score.
Yet that didn’t earn Cunningham a serious look under center. It was just a brief preseason cameo against the Tennessee Titans and a handful of plays against the Las Vegas Raiders.
The logic behind signing Cunningham was sound. The Patriots would have a scout team QB to give the defense good looks at defending dual-threat quarterbacks. As a long-term project, they could also see if they could develop Cunningham into an offensive weapon, similar to the New Orleans Saints’ Taysom Hill.
But the Patriots should have been treating Cunningham as a quarterback. It was the only position Cunningham played at Louisville. He clearly had an intriguing, raw ability to work with.
And with the terrible play from Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe (until the Pittsburgh Steelers game), New England should have also given Cunningham a shot. The worst case is Cunningham would have bombed spectacularly.
The best case is they would discover that Cunningham was worth developing further. It shouldn’t change anything come April. Drafting a quarterback should still be the Patriots’ priority.
But with New England’s QB position in disarray, still searching for a face of the franchise since 2019, the Patriots shouldn’t leave any stone unturned. They did just that this year, working out several passers as Jones continued to implode. But apparently never gave Cunningham serious consideration as an option.
Teammates saying goodbye to a former teammate/friend is nothing new. But the reactions from some of the Patriots players show faith in his potential, and some suggest Cunningham’s talents weren’t appreciated in New England.
Cunningham should have been given a chance under center this season. With the Patriots already out of playoff contention and without a franchise quarterback, New England had nothing to lose by giving Cunningham a shot at the position he wanted to play.
The Ravens will give him that. We can’t fault Cunningham for leaving. But we can knock the Patriots for giving Cunningham a reason to go.