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Rookie Malik Cunningham comes into focus in light of Patriots’ offensive struggles

The Patriots need help on offense after not scoring a touchdown in 34 straight drives.

Houston Texans v New England Patriots Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

The New England Patriots offense has hit arguably its roughest stretch of the Bill Belichick era, scoring only three points over the last 11 quarters, and no touchdowns in 34 straight possessions. The team is in dire need of some spark on that side of the ball, and as part of its “starting over” process is evaluating the entire operation.

At least at the moment, drastic personnel choices are not expected to come from that. The team might be more willing to try out news things, though, because the old ones clearly are not working.

Enter Malik Cunningham.

An undrafted free agent out of Louisville, Cunningham joined the Patriots earlier this offseason. Despite being a highly-productive dual-threat quarterback in college, who even broke Lamar Jackson’s school record for touchdowns, the team opted to develop him at wide receiver rather than his original position.

However, the 6-foot-1, 198-pounder did see some action under center during preseason; he ended the exhibition schedule going 3-of-6 as a passer for 15 yards, while also carrying the ball six times for 39 yards and a touchdown, and catching one pass for -1 yards. Obviously, his production came primarily against second- and third-string players, but the team saw enough to keep him around via the practice squad.

“Malik did a very good job in the preseason,” said offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien on Tuesday. “Malik works very hard. He does a good job on the practice squad, plays a lot of receiver. Played some quarterback last week with mimicking Taysom Hill.”

Given the issues the Patriots have had the last two weeks in particular, Cunningham has been a popular name thrown out there as a potential catalyst for the offense. Could he be just that? Theoretically, yes.

However, Cunningham making any impact as a quarterback, let alone challenging Mac Jones for the starting job, is unlikely to happen. There is only so much that can be expected from a rookie with no regular season experience under his belt. Even though the circumstances appear to work in his favor, Cunningham suddenly bursting onto the scene would therefore be a major surprise.

That said, he might be getting an opportunity sooner rather than later considering that wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Demario Douglas are both in concussion protocol. In addition, the team seems to like what it has in the 25-year-old.

“He does a really good job, and he’s continued to improve,” said O’Brien. “He’s probably one of the most improved practice squad players that we have. So, a good guy to work with.”

Considering everything that is going on right now, the door has probably never been more open for Cunningham to earn his first regular season snaps. From an individual perspective, that would be a success.

From a team perspective, it is a sign of where the offense — both in terms of success and personnel available — currently stands more than anything else.