The New England Patriots wrapped up their pre-season with a drubbing at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and their Head Coach, Mike Vrabel. So what else is new? They also completed their pre-season essentially and will have to cut their roster to 53 players in a few days.
The most important position on any NFL team is the quarterback (QB). Have a great one, you win. Have a mediocre one, you try to scrape by to gain a playoff berth. Have a poor one, wait for the draft.
The New England Patriots starting quarterback is Mac Jones. He won the job almost by default. The backup can be significant or not, depending on how lucky you are with injuries. You need one and if you have that good QB, you hope to never use him. But it doesn't work that way all the time.
The Patriots have/had Bailey Zappe as their presumptive Number 2 quarterback in training camp. Now, that may be in question. Zappe laid an egg in the preseason and a huge one against the Titans with 4 sacks and three fumbles. So who should be the backup QB?
New England Patriots should install Malik Cunningham as the back-up QB
Malik Cunningham, the former Louisville QB is the only dual-threat QB on the Patriots roster. They liked him and gave him the most guaranteed dollars ever to a Patriot undrafted free agent. Was it as a quarterback or as a receiver? Or both? Who knows, and frankly it doesn't matter much.
Patriots observers are finally coming to the table and acknowledging that the team's offensive line is their Achilles heel. It's about time. The team has been negligent in addressing that position effectively (as opposed to at all) this offseason, or last for that matter. It's a big mistake.
No unit on the team after the QB is more important for a whole host of reasons. That's been dealt with before. Suffice it to say, no O-line, no way. The whole team will pay the price.
So in light of this, why is Malik Cunningham the choice as the backup quarterback? It makes sense for a number of reasons. One is as a possible injury replacement for Jones. Others have merits on their own. Let's take a quick look
New England Patriots Cunningham makes up for O-line deficiencies
Both Jones and Zappe are pocket passers with some, but not much escapability in the pocket. That's a negative if you have a solid offensive line. If not, it's a disaster in waiting. As Zappe's performance with the backups against the Titans showed, it's essential if you're going to be a winner.
Since the Patriots' O-line, even the starters are questionable, how does Cunningham make a difference? First, he has that escapability. The Patriots' top O-line is OK in a few positions and thin or worse at the tackles. Center David Andrews, guard Michael Onwenu, and tackle Trent Brown (hopefully) are legitimate NFL linemen. The rest aren't.
Unless Onwenu plays tackle, the right tackle will be weak and any injury to Brown could be disastrous. Cunningham's escapability is helpful even if they play fairly well. If not when injuries strike the O-line, it will be essential.
Cunningham is an electric runner, turning broken plays into big gainers. If the O-line stinks, he'll be the best option to lead the team. Neither Jones nor Zappe escapes the rush very well.
In addition, Cunningham saves a game-day roster spot by his being able to play wide receiver in a pinch While he didn't impress much there in camp, neither did QB-turned wide receiver Julian Edelman back in the day.
Cunningham can also play special teams, but his greatest value is still as a QB. He not only can present a running threat from the position either improvised or programmed, but he can also be used as a change-of-pace QB in situations like 3rd and long. In addition, he can be a gadget player, able to throw from the run.
All that leads to one thing, opposing defensive coordinators have to game-plan for Cunningham every game if he's on the game-day roster. That's a good thing. Game-plan for him, and there's less time for planning for Jones.
The decision should be not only to place Cunningham on the 53-man final roster but on every game-day roster as well. Are the New England Patriots astute enough to do that? Probably not. They'll likely try to sneak him onto the practice squad or he'll develop the "Foxborough flu" and go on IR.
The New England Patriots have a chance to endorse their own investment in Cunningham by keeping him as a roster fixture. We'll see if they do. If not, expect them to wish they had. It would be a huge gaffe.