With less than three weeks to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have the league-allowed maximum of 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s offensive tackles.
Name: Korey Cunningham
Position: Offensive tackle
Jersey number: 74
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-5, 305 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
What is his experience? Following a five-year career at the University of Cincinnati that saw him appear in 45 games with 24 starts, Cunningham was selected in the seventh round of the NFL’s 2018 draft by the Arizona Cardinals. Despite his draft status, however, the rookie was able to make the Cardinals’s 53-man roster during his rookie season and went on to carve out a rather prominent role over the second half of the year: after being a game-day inactive for the Cardinals’ first nine games, he started their next six.
His tenure as the team’s starting left tackle in place of an injured D.J. Humphries had its ups and downs, however, and came to an abrupt end in late December: Cunningham hurt his foot in Week 16, and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. Even though he was back on the practice and preseason fields the following season, he failed to build on his foundation in Year Two. Instead, Cunningham was traded to the Patriots where he played but a marginal role — adding only one in-game appearance to the six already on his résumé.
What did his 2019 season look like? The aforementioned foot injury that prematurely ended his rookie season forced Cunningham to undergo surgery, but he was back in action for the team’s offseason workout program and eventually filled his previous role as a backup swing tackle again when training camp opened. Even though he appeared to be on his way to earn a spot on Arizona’s 53-man roster yet again, the Cardinals decided to trade Cunningham to the Patriots ahead of their preseason finale.
New England sent a sixth-round draft choice to Arizona in order to acquire the second-year man, and he entered opening week as the team’s number three offensive tackle behind starters Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon. Shortly thereafter, however, that role went to veteran free agency acquisition Marshall Newhouse — leaving Cunningham as just the fourth option at his position, and as a player who saw the field just once all year: in Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins, he played 59 snaps on offense and eight on special teams.
Cunningham started that game on the bench but was inserted into the lineup at right tackle after Wynn suffered an injury that forced the Patriots to move some pieces around up front. The ex-Cardinal was generally serviceable during that game considering the circumstances: he surrendered one hurry as a pass protector and also was solid in the running game, but was flagged once for a false start. Still, his performance was not enough to earn him any more playing time for the rest of the season even with Wynn missing eight games.
What is his projected role? Cunningham served as a backup swing tackle through his first two years in the league, and this role is not expected to change in 2020 with both Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon still around as the Patriots’ starting tackles. Unless in case of an injury higher up on the depth chart, the 25-year-old therefore projects to see only limited playing time and gain most of his experience in practice and preseason again.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, the Patriots employed Cunningham for eight snaps in the kicking game last season: in his lone in-game appearance of the year, he aligned as a front-line protector on field goal and extra point attempts — a job he also had in Arizona. Given that he usually plays along the offensive line, however, his special teams value should not be expected to go beyond this role.
Does he have positional versatility? While New England used Cunningham exclusively as a right tackle last season — a continuation of how the Cardinals employed him in preseason — he does bring considerable experience playing on the other end of the line to the table as well: all six of his career starts came at the left tackle position. Accordingly, he can be seen as a swing tackle option heading into the 2020 season.
What is his salary cap situation? Given that Cunningham joined the Patriots via trade last August, he is still on the four-year rookie contract he originally signed in Arizona in 2018. New England did not take on all of the deal when it acquired the former seventh-round draft pick (his remaining guarantees stayed with the Cardinals), however, which means that he is on the team’s books with a salary cap hit of just $750,000 this season. That number that does not qualify him for the top-51 rule, though, meaning that he does not count against the cap until he makes the 53-man roster.
What is his roster outlook? Even though the Patriots let one of their offensive tackles go in free agency — Marshall Newhouse remains unsigned — Cunningham is not guaranteed to ascend to the No. 3 role or even to earn a spot on the team. After all, he does face some talented competition in the form of second-year man Yodny Cajuste and rookie Justin Herron. With Cajuste the favorite to earn the backup/swing role behind Wynn and Cannon, the question for Cunningham will be whether or not he can beat out Herron for spot number four either on the active roster or at least the practice squad. His experience both in the league and New England’s system should help him accomplish that goal, especially during this year’s abbreviated offseason.