New England Patriots: Electric quarterback makes an early case

Malik Cunningham makes a huge statement against Houston
Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Malik Cunningham (16)
Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Malik Cunningham (16) / Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots have been a relatively poor free-agency team and a rather poor drafting one in addition. One area of the offseason team-building process at which it truly excels, however, is at locating and signing undrafted free agents (UDFAs).

The list of solid and better players signed in this way is a long one. They range from Super Bowl winner, Malcolm Butler, to cornerback starters J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones, to long-time starting center, the Rock of Gibraltar, David Andrews. The New England Patriots are the masters of finding diamonds in the proverbial rough in undrafted young players.

This season, in a lightning-quick action, when free agency opened, the Patriots snapped up a UDFA quarterback, Malik Cunningham of Louisville, and paid the team's largest single UDFA guaranteed money ever. So why the fuss over a UDFA? Anyone who subsequently or who'd had the perspicacity to have identified Cuningham earlier could easily see that he has special talents.

New England Patriots' Malik Cunningham, the gem of the offseason?

The New England Patriots lost their first exhibition game to the Houston Texans by a 20-9 score in a game that wasn't that close. A lackluster offensive performance by the team exemplified by the backup offensive line doomed any chance for quarterbacks Bailey Zappe or Trace McSorley to do much of anything. That is until the trump card arrived in the person of Malik Cunningham in the fourth quarter.

Cunningham is a favorite and his performance was no surprise. He's a dual-threat quarterback and evidently, Bill O'Brien, the New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator knows exactly how to utilize those talents. That's something vaunted former Offensive Coordinator, Josh McDaniels couldn't do with Cam Newton in 2020. Cunningham electrified the bored crowd in the fourth quarter exhibiting the "escapability" and pure running talent he showed in spades at Louisville.

Here's how described his effort,

""The New England offense struggled for most of the evening, and it wasn’t until the later stages of the game that things began to click. Undrafted rookie quarterback Malik Cunningham provided a spark for the Patriots. He did most of  his work on the ground, carrying the ball five times for 38 yards and a touchdown.""

Cunningham electrified the crowd and even impressed the player on whom he fashioned his game, the should-have-been-Patriot, Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens whose records he broke at Louisville. Jackson Tweeted admiringly,

New England Patriots Bill Belichick may have struck paydirt, again!

Could New England Patriots' history repeat itself? Maybe so. In 2000, a skinny rookie from Michigan named Tom Brady arrived in Foxborough with no fanfare as the fourth-string quarterback. He made the team in a somewhat incredible circle of events. By the beginning of 2001, he had earned the Number Two spot behind Drew Bledsoe and when Bledsoe was hurt, he stepped in and never looked back.

Is Cunningham another Brady? Of course not, no, no one is. Yet, he's dynamic and poised and it's not impossible to see him leapfrog Trace McSorely into the third spot and challenge Bailey Zappe for the second if his positive performances continue, as is expected here.

Those who say he's all run and no pass, take another look. Jackson had about the same completion percentage as Brady in his final college year. He had a good passing game against Houston and only missed a touchdown when Trey Nixon let a touchdown fall off his hands in the end zone. A starting receiver brings that one in.

A previous article outlined the several ways Cunningham can be utilized including by being: a third QB and receiver, saving a roster spot every game; a change-of-pace back to insert into the game to ruffle defenses; being a third-and-long nightmare for opposing defenses who have to game-plan for him; being a masterful flea-flicker guy; and, as Phil Perry of NBC Sports Boston has noted, he can also be a dual-threat scout team member for games such as against Jalen Hurts of Philadelphia in the first game of the season.

The New England Patriots may have hit paydirt with another UDFA, or maybe not. First, they have to realize that they have struck gold and treat the young payer accordingly. That includes giving Cunningham solid minutes in the rest of the pre-season games to see how the offense with its suspect offensive line responds. Cunningham is the exact remedy for a porous O-line. His running ability is a great equalizer. Just solidify his status and let the games begin. Then, never look back.