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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Korey Cunningham needs to step up his game to make the New England roster again

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: OT Yodny Cajuste

New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

With training camp underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series continues with offensive lineman Korey Cunningham.

Hard facts

Name: Korey Cunningham

Position: Offensive tackle/Guard

Jersey number: 74

Opening day age: 26

Size: 6-foot-5, 305 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)

Experience

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 2. Instead, Cunningham was traded to the Patriots where he has played only a marginal role since while appearing in a combined 12 games.

What did his 2020 season look like? After joining the Patriots in late August 2019 and subsequently appearing in only one game for his new club, Cunningham did not get a chance to build on his experience during the offseason. With the Coronavirus pandemic forcing team operations to move to a virtual setting, he had to wait until training camp before rejoining his teammates again to start to prepare for his first full season with the organization. Despite those challenges, Cunningham did make the team.

Even though he was able to survive roster cutdowns, his role did not significantly change compared to his 2019 campaign. Cunningham again served as a “break glass in case of emergency”-type offensive tackle and as a result was on the field for only 46 snaps throughout the season (of 1,011; 4.5%). The third-year man saw most of his action at the left tackle position, but he also was moved to left guard and the in-line tight end spot on occasion. Along the way, he surrendered 2.5 quarterback disruptions.

Nonetheless, he was unable to earn regular playing time despite some moving parts along the offensive line. The Patriots, after all, had lost Marcus Cannon to the Coronavirus opt-out list ahead of training camp but they turned to Jermaine Eluemunor and Michael Onwenu to replace him. Even when Eluemunor and Isaiah Wynn went down with injuries, Cunningham was still not elevated to a starting role: New England turned to rookies Onwenu and Justin Herron to help fill the respective voids rather than Cunningham.

Based on playing time share, his most prominent exposure came in the kicking game. Serving as a blocker on field goal and extra point attempts, Cunningham saw action in 11 of a possible 16 games and was on the field for 41 out of 399 special teams snaps (10.3%). While his playing time share was noticeably higher in the game’s third phase than on offense, Cunningham’s third NFL season as a whole was again a quiet one: he was a classic backup player and as such did not see the field on a consistent basis.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? Cunningham served as a backup swing tackle throughout his first three years in the league, and this role is not expected to change in 2021 with Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown locked into the Patriots’ starting roles at left and right offensive tackle, respectively. Unless in case of an injury higher up on the depth chart, the 26-year-old therefore projects to see only limited playing time and gain most of his experience in practice and preseason.

What is his special teams value? As noted above, the Patriots employed Cunningham for 41 snaps in the kicking game last season: he aligned as a front-line protector on field goal and extra point attempts — a job he also held during his first season in New England and back during his time in Arizona as well. Given that he usually plays along the offensive line, however, his special teams value should not be expected to go beyond a role like this.

Does he have positional versatility? When Cunningham arrived in New England in 2019, he aligned exclusively at the right tackle position. In 2020, meanwhile, he was employed at both left tackle and left guard on top of his special teams usage. Heading into his third season in the organization, his positional flexibility might just be one of his biggest assets: Cunningham might not just compete for a backup spot at tackle but possibly for one along the interior line as well.

What is his salary cap situation? Given that the Cardinals traded him to New England in 2019, Cunningham is still on his rookie contract. Entering its final season, he is on the Patriots’ books with a salary cap number of $920,000. That number does not include any guarantees, and furthermore is currently not counting against the Patriots’ salary cap: Cunningham’s pact does not qualify for Top-51 status, and will only officially hit the books if he makes the 53-man roster come the regular season.

What is his roster outlook? Even though he received limited playing time the last two season, the Patriots still kept Cunningham around. His outlook for 2021 is still an uncertain one. While him going through an offseason with the club for once certainly helps, he will need to step up his game in order to earn a backup spot along the offensive line — especially considering that Justin Herron already saw more playing time in that role last season as a rookie. Cunningham therefore appears to be on thin ice as far as his future in New England is concerned.