Patriots next preseason game could be make-or-break for this undrafted rookie

Malik Cunningham runs the ball the Patriots preseason opener vs. the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium.
Malik Cunningham runs the ball the Patriots preseason opener vs. the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. / Omar Rawlings/GettyImages

After leading the New England Patriots on a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown run that culminated in a nine-yard run himself, Malik Cunningham had NFL Twitter buzzing on Thursday night.

After training all week at the wide receiver spot and even playing some on special teams in the game, he even had Musket Fire's Sara Marshall quipping him as a possible option for the Patriots as "their version of Taysom Hill."

The one problem with all the excitement is that it creates for this weekend's game to be a make-or-break for Cunningham. As an undrafted rookie, one excellent performance does not a 53-man roster invite guarantee.

Cunningham will need to have another performance like he did against the Texans to even stay in the conversation to make the roster at the end of the preseason.

Unless reported otherwise between now and then, he is expected to play on Saturday at Lambeau Field against the Packers. How much and when Cunningham plays in Saturday's game against the Packers determines how the coaching staff looks at him.

If he plays late in the game...

If Cunningham plays late in the game, he's more of an afterthought to Belichick. Generally speaking, if you're playing in the fourth quarter, you're not playing much during the regular season, if at all - with the exceptions of special team players.

When he came in late in the fourth quarter against the Texans, it was more of an afterthought to just throw him in there and see what he could do. It turns out he led them on a 75-yard drive and opened the eyes of fans and coaches alike.

While this scenario is not likely, it is entirely possible, but in this reporter's opinion, don't count on this being the case, despite Belichick saying he's "got a long way to go."

If he plays in the middle of the game...

If he plays in the middle of the game, it's most likely that Belichick is considering him for the backup quarterback spot INSTEAD of Bailey Zappe. That's not to say he's just going to up and say after the game, "Hey, Malik, the backup job is yours" (although he could privately), but he may be trying different combinations.

Zappe still does have a chance to prove himself worthy of the backup role. There is the off-chance he still has the job locked down after looking and feeling more comfortable in the first preseason game, but that remains to be seen with two preseason games left.

This is the most likely spot I see Cunningham in after a slow start behind center for Trace McSorley.

If he starts the game...

Obviously, this is the most unlikely of all scenarios; it could potentially have a double meaning. The first and most obvious is that Cunningham has won the starting job, and Zappe has lost it. The second is that Belichick and staff are intrigued and want to see what he can do with more reps.

Cunningham is definitely an intriguing arm and one that they want to keep an eye on; it's just a matter of where they want to see him more: special teams/wide receiver or as a quarterback.

I don't see him as a starter in this next one, but with Belichick, anything is possible.

Other thoughts

It's no secret that Cunningham is this year's undrafted free agent "diamond in the rough." for Belichick, as Musket Fire's Michael DeVito writes. He does check off many boxes and helps them overcome some of their losses in the offseason and some of the hurdles the NFL has put in front of them.

However, one thing that Cunningham does do that could be a detriment is to create the potential of two different offenses New England would have to trot out there - one dedicated to him and the other devoted to Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe.