Leading up to the start of the Patriots season, we will be previewing one or two Patriots players per day (counting down from #99), taking a look at their 2010 seasons and projecting what each player might bring to the table in 2011. Feel free to leave your own predictions in the comments section!
Name: Jermaine Cunningham
Age/HT/WT: 23 / 6'3" / 266 lbs
Years Pro: 2
2010 Season: The build-up to Jermaine Cunningham's rookie campaign had some real highs and lows. When he was first drafted, there was a fair deal of optimism surrounding the pick as Cunningham's selection marked the highest the team had ever drafted a rush linebacker under Bill Belichick. However, when training camp rolled around, Jermaine Cunningham found himself injured, and most fans thought to themselves... "here comes Shawn Crable 2.0."
However, Cunningham managed to get rid of that perception when he suited up as a reserve pass rusher, and even managed to make some plays against the run against the Jets in week two. By week three against the Bills, Cunningham had been inserted into the starting lineup as an outside linebacker, and he never really looked back. In 15 games played, Cunningham made 11 starts, recording 34 tackles and one sack.
While the sack numbers aren't particularly impressive, Cunningham's pass rushing skills were more productive than the single sack would indicate. Cunningham had 21 total pressures (according to PFF) and let a few would-be sacks slip from his grasp, but also forced some bad throws, most notably the game sealing interception he forced on Peyton Manning in week 11 against the Colts.
Cunningham also proved very capable as a run defender, and was able to hold up as both a left and right side outside linebacker. One area where Cunningham could seek to improve is in pass coverage. While Cunningham didn't particularly struggle in this area, he only saw 38 total snaps in coverage according to ProFootballFocus.com.
2011 Projected Role: Heading into 2011, many would consider Jermaine Cunningham to be the number one outside linebacker on the New England Patriots' depth chart. What's great about having a guy like Cunningham around is the versatility that he provides. As an outside linebacker, Cunningham has the versatility to play the strong/left side, the right side, or even put his hand into the dirt as a 3rd down pass rusher. Cunningham played just over half the snaps last season for the Patriots, but I would expect that number to increase in 2011. Cunningham, in addition to rushing the passer, will also likely find himself in coverage more than he did last season. Patriots fans are expecting a lot of things from Jermaine Cunningham next season, but based on how he performed last year, if he can stay healthy, I don't see why he cannot reach those expectations.
2011 Projected Stats: 16 games played, 15 games started, 56 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2 passes defended
Bottom Line: Top outside linebacker on the Patriots depth chart who should be the team's top pass rusher, and will also see time on both sides.