When New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about practice squad QB/WR Malik Cunningham on Friday, he indicated that Cunningham was “definitely trending towards” an opportunity on game day.
Belichick may have meant sooner rather than later.
According to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, the dual-threat quarterback “has been part of” the Patriots game plan for the Las Vegas Raiders this week. However, with New England’s injury report featuring a season-high 17 players this week, there may be more-pressing elevations needed at other positions.
Here’s a fun one: QB/WR Malik Cunningham has been part of the Patriots’ game plan this week against the Raiders.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) October 13, 2023
But there’s a caveat. With seven players already ruled out and 10 more listed as questionable, they may need to use his promotion/activation elsewhere. TBD.
Speaking earlier this week Bill O’Brien noted the 25-year old continues to primarily work at wide receiver during practice, but has mimicked running QBs (Taysom Hill) on the scout team. The offensive coordinator went on the praise Cunningham, calling him one of the most improved players on the practice squad.
Belichick agreed with the assessment.
“Malik’s really worked hard and made a lot of improvement,” he said on Friday. “He never really played in the kicking game at Louisville, so he’s started to show up there, never played receiver – didn’t look very good either, in the spring, but he’s really improved there. He can catch the ball, but just route running and finding zones and things like that. But, it’s come pretty naturally to him. He plays a good amount of quarterback. He’s competent there.”
If Cunningham does receive the call on Sunday, he has a chance to provide a serious spark for an offense searching every which way for one. The UDFA out of Louisville was a dynamic college QB, piling up 6,276 yards and 71 touchdowns through the air while rushing for 1,926 yards and 32 scores during his collegiate career.
While he has played primarily at receiver since arriving in New England, Cunningham did see time at quarterback during the offseason. That included packaged plays in practice in place of Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe near the goal line or in short yardage situations, along with one drive in the preseason opener - prompting the birth of “Malik Mania.”
During his long drive under center in the preseason, Cunningham’s dynamic skillset was apparent as he recorded 34 yards and a score on five rushes. While he threw just four passes in a watered-down scheme, Cunningham was a playmaker with the ball in his hands on runs out of empty (above) and zone-read concepts (below), where he is able to read the backside defender and either keep or hand the football off.
While it’s important to note that it was late in the preseason opener, New England is desperate for playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. As for Cunningham, his added boost in the ground game could be a welcomed sight for the Patriots struggling run game that ranks dead last in EPA per rushing attempt.
“He’s a smart kid, works hard, and the opportunities he’s had, he’s shown a lot of improvement,” Belichick added. “It’s a little too early for an induction ceremony here, but definitely a lot of improvement.”