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Patriots add Malik Cunningham and Tyquan Thornton to 53-man roster amid series of moves

New England is bolstering its wide receiver depth.

NFL: AUG 10 Preseason - Texans at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Update 10/14/2023: Patriots add Malik Cunningham and Tyquan Thornton to 53-man roster amid series of moves

The New England Patriots have been quite busy on Saturday. Not only did they sign rookie quarterback/wide receiver Malik Cunningham from their practice squad to their 53-man team, as previously reported, they also made three other moves.

Sophomore Tyquan Thornton, who had missed the first five games of the season on injured reserve, is being activated. In addition, edge linebacker Matthew Judon and offensive tackle Tyrone Wheatley Jr. are being placed on injured reserve.

Thornton, 23, joined the Patriots as a second-round selection in last year’s draft. He showed promise early on, but a collarbone injury suffered in preseason forced him to start his rookie campaign on injured reserve. When he was eventually activated, he had some ups and downs en route to a 22-catch, 247-yard, two-touchdown season that also saw him carry the ball three times for 16 yards and another score.

New England hoped for the speedy wideout to emerge as a starter-level contributor, but he followed up an uneven spring with another trip to IR. Thornton was sent to the reserve list after suffering an undisclosed shoulder ailment during joint practices with the Green Bay Packers.

Judon, 31, has been a core member of the Patriots defense ever since his arrival as a free agent in 2021. The team’s most disruptive pass rusher and a stout edge-setter in the run game, he was voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his first two campaigns with the club.

However, a biceps injury suffered in Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys forced him to undergo surgery. There is hope, however, that he might be able to return by December.

Wheatley Jr., 26, started his career as an undrafted rookie in Chicago in 2020 before stints in Las Vegas and Cleveland. He eventually found his way to the Patriots via trade in August, joining the club in exchange for sophomore running back Pierre Strong Jr. Seeing action in two games as a blocker on special teams, he never emerged past reserve status at offensive tackle before apparently suffering a knee injury during Friday’s practice.

Original story 10/14/2023: Patriots sign rookie QB/WR Malik Cunningham to their 53-man roster

The New England Patriots are in dire need of some spark on the offensive side of the ball, and it looks like they are hoping Malik Cunningham can provide it. At the very least, they are giving him a shot.

As first reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the rookie wide receiver/quarterback hybrid is being signed from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. Cunningham will receive a three-year deal.

Cunningham, 25, did not hear his name called in this year’s NFL Draft. Despite being a highly-productive career as a dual-threat quarterback at Louisville — one who broke Lamar Jackson’s school record for touchdowns — he had to go through rookie free agency to find a home.

The Patriots eventually picked him up, but decided to develop him at wide receiver rather than quarterback. However, the 6-foot-1, 198-pounder ended up playing a multi-faceted role in preseason: he went 3-of-6 as a passer for 15 yards, carried the ball six times for 39 yards and a touchdown, and caught one pass for -1 yards — all while also working on special teams.

His production did come primarily against second- and third-string players, but the Patriots apparently liked what they saw. While they did release him ahead of roster cutdown day, they wasted no time bringing him back via the practice squad.

“Malik did a very good job in the preseason,” offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said earlier this week. “Malik works very hard. He does a good job on the practice squad, plays a lot of receiver. ... He does a really good job, and he’s continued to improve. He’s probably one of the most improved practice squad players that we have. So, a good guy to work with.”

The Patriots are not only struggling offensively, they are also down two members of their wide receiver group for the upcoming Week 6 game against the Las Vegas Raiders: JuJu Smith-Schuster and Demario Douglas did not make the trip while in concussion protocol.

Those circumstances, plus Cunningham’s work behind the scenes, have now opened the door for him. After an earlier report that he may be part of this week’s game plan, he has now been added to the active squad.

“Malik’s really worked hard and made a lot of improvement,” head coach Bill Belichick 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.

“He’s a smart kid, works hard, and the opportunities he’s had, he’s shown a lot of improvement.”

The Patriots’ roster stood at a full 53 entering the weekend, meaning that a follow-up transaction will be necessary. Sending edge linebacker Matthew Judon to injured reserve appears to be a possible move to free up the space needed for Cunningham.

New England will take on the Raiders on Sunday. Kickoff at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium is set for 4:05 p.m. ET.