The Patriots made a big splash after the 2023 draft when it was announced they were signing undrafted free-agent quarterback Malik Cunningham out of Louisville.
Besides being a shock considering the type of player he is, Bill Belichick's contract offer gave Cunningham the most money the organization has ever guaranteed to a UDFA, potentially putting the Patriots' perspective of him at the forefront.
Since then, we've seen the dual-threat be used as a receiver during OTAs and minicamp, while not ignoring his experience under center. How they will choose to use him throughout the summer will surely be one of the most discussed topics during training camp, mainly due to how they want to take advantage of his versatile skillset and how that fits with the team.
Overall, he's an exciting prospect that could be used in various ways that could make the Patriots' offense far more interesting than anticipated.
His strengths are valuable for many reasons, and his most noticeable weaknesses may cause concern. Still, Cunningham has a high potential to be the Swiss army knife type of player that Belichick historically loves, and hopefully, he can prove that during training camp later this month.
2021 STATS - 13 games played
PASSING: 209/337 completions for 2,941 yards, 19 touchdowns, 6 interceptions
--RUSHING: 173 carries for 1,031 yards and 20 touchdowns
2022 STATS - 10 games played
PASSING: 136/218 completions for 1,568 yards, 8 touchdowns, 5 interceptions
--RUSHING: 113 carries for 560 yards, 12 touchdowns
After the seemingly failed attempt to utilize the play style of Cam Newton during the 2020 season, the Patriots choosing to sign UDFA Malik Cunningham was all the more interesting.
Often compared to Lamar Jackson, Cunningham is a natural athlete and is very much the type of quarterback that the NFL is trending to cultivate. His speed and ability to continue a play with his legs make him the dual-threat many teams want, particularly when it comes to the difficulty defenses have in slowing them down.
Besides the obvious comparable traits to other running quarterbacks, Cunningham is also known for his great vision of the field and his elusiveness when being tracked by defenders when trying to complete a play.
One aspect that shouldn't be overlooked about his game is his progression throughout his time at Louisville. Every new season, Cunningham built upon what he accomplished the year prior and proved to be coachable and determined to improve every year.
Although the NFL is very clearly moving in the direction of wanting more physical and versatile quarterbacks capable of running the football as much as they can throw it, Cunningham's style of play turned off a lot of teams during the draft process.
His style of play is new and not traditional for most coaches since many prefer a true pocket passer, but his smaller size (6’0”, 192 lbs) deterred some teams from even considering him as an option at quarterback or any other position, despite being taller than some of the current starters in the league.
Other concerns arose during the evaluation process that seemingly made coaches and GMs look the other way, most notably his accuracy and consistency.
Cunningham's deep ball accuracy is what has been criticized the most. Since it has become a highlighted part of a quarterback's game in the NFL, particularly in recent years, it's a big hit for any quarterback with this issue.
Because of the concerns regarding his size and abilities to play quarterback at the next level, the Patriots have already experimented with using Cunningham as a receiver during OTAs and minicamp.
He has said to be open to doing whatever it takes to play football in the NFL, including switching positions, which may create more opportunities to make the team.
As it stands, the Patriots have four quarterbacks on the roster heading into training camp; Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe, Trace McSorley, and Cunningham. We know that Jones will be the starter, and Zappe will remain the backup. That leaves McSorely, a four-year veteran, and Cunningham competing for the potential final quarterback spot for the 2023 season.
It's difficult to imagine Belichick rolling with just two quarterbacks into the regular season, especially after Jones suffered an ankle injury last year and Hoyer was ruled out after a concussion against the Packers. But if McSorley or Cunningham don't demonstrate a reason to keep either of them, the expectation is that Cunningham would be a contender for the practice squad.
Remaining in his given position will likely give him a better chance to make the team because of just having Jones and Zappe. Although not considered elite, the receiving corps has much more competition that Cunningham would have to bypass with an incredible performance even to be considered for the 53-man roster.