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Sunday Patriots Notes: What to expect from Malik Cunningham and Tyquan Thornton against the Raiders

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the NFL on October 15.

New England Patriots v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

At 1-4, the only way for the New England Patriots appears to be up. Anything else — starting with a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday — would put them even further behind the eight ball in the pursuit of a playoff spot, and put additional pressure on the likes of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Mac Jones.

Naturally, that Week 6 contest in Las Vegas had our full attention this week. For anything else, let’s clean out the notebook. Welcome to our Sunday Patriots Notes.

1. What to expect from Malik Cunningham and Tyquan Thornton: The Patriots made a series of roster moves no Saturday, including adding some offensive talent to their 53-man roster: rookie quarterback/wide receiver hybrid Malik Cunningham was signed from the practice squad to the active team, while wideout Tyquan Thornton was activated off injured reserve.

The expectation is that both will make their season debuts on Sunday against Las Vegas. What is less clear, meanwhile, is what their roles will look like. Let’s pull out our crystal ball to project how they might be used.

QB/WR Malik Cunningham: The Patriots will stick with Mac Jones as their starting quarterback for now, but Cunningham factoring into the mix on Sunday would not come as a surprise. The 25-year-old is not the most refined passer, but he can have value as a package and gadget option: the team using him in select packages both as a dual-threat option under center and a wideout might be in the cards.

WR Tyquan Thornton: Thornton seeing a hefty workload right away would be a bit of a surprise considering how the Patriots usually treat players coming off of a prolonged injury absence. That said, when the sophomore wideout sees the field he will likely line up as a Z-receiver with a focus on challenging the Raiders’ so-and-so defense in the intermediate and deep parts of the field.

Ultimately, neither Cunningham nor Thornton should be expected to come in and make a major difference for the Patriots. However, both do have value and might help give the team a much-needed spark on that side of the ball.

2. Patriots’ restart focuses on fundamentals: Following their 34-0 beatdown at the hands of the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Bill Belichick set the theme of the week as “starting over.” What exactly that process entailed only those inside One Patriot Place know, but a focus on fundamentals on offense was included.

“Fundamentals is definitely a part of any successful play or game. That’s part of it. I mean, there’s obviously other things at work. We’ll look at everything,” said Belichick earlier this week.

“All good plays come with good fundamentals. We need to be a better fundamental team in every area. Between schemes, coaches, players, awareness, things like that, situational awareness, we just have to do a better job than what we’re doing. I don’t think there’s any one thing that’s going to change it, or any one player, we just all have to do a better job.”

3. Lack of RPOs a surprising development for the Patriots offense: Bringing in Bill O’Brien as their offensive coordinator, the belief was the Patriots would implement an Alabama-style offense focused heavily around run-pass option plays and play-action. While the team did incorporate those earlier, their recent blowout losses have seen little in terms of both.

As far as RPOs are concerned, New England called just three in each of those defeats.

If the Patriots want to get their offense out of the mud it is stuck in, more RPOs — something Mac Jones usually is confident in executing — might be a start. Of course, O’Brien did not limit the number of those plays without a reason.

4. Stability at right tackle has been an issue throughout the Mac Jones era: With Riley Reiff missing the game against the Raiders due to a knee injury, Vederian Lowe will remain at right tackle. How much staying power the first-year Patriot has can be questioned, though, given his performances the last two games in particular.

If a change is made — and Reiff appears to be a prime candidate — the new RT would be the 11th starter at the position since Mac Jones’ arrival in 2021. So far, the list looks like this (via Miguel Benzan)

  • Trent Brown
  • Yasir Durant
  • Justin Herron
  • Yodny Cajuste
  • Michael Onwenu
  • Isaiah Wynn
  • Marcus Cannon
  • Conor McDermott
  • Calvin Anderson
  • Vederian Lowe

The Patriots’ right tackle spot has been an issue for some time now, and something the team will need to address this coming offseason. As 2022 and 2023 showed, leaving the spot without reliable options is a dangerous game.

5. Jalen Reagor is getting another shot: Former first-round draft pick Jalen Reagor has had a disappointing NFL career so far. However, he might be getting his next shot on Sunday against the Raiders. With the Patriots down two wideouts — JuJu Smith-Schuster and Demario Douglas are in concussion protocol — Reagor is a candidate to see some playing time.

“He’s a first-round pick. He’s a talented guy,” said Bill Belichick on Friday. “It’s a different system than he has been in. He’s been in two other systems, Nick [Sirianni]’s system, the Philly system, which is kind of a West coast system and then Kevin [O’Connell]’s system, which is more of a [Sean] McVay, [Kyle] Shanahan version. We’re a little bit different than that, so some of the terminology and things like that.

“But, he’s been out there every day, works hard, done a good job on the scout team. He’s definitely coming along.”

6. Losing Matthew Judon ‘absolutely stinks’ for the Patriots defense: The Patriots officially sent star edge defender Matthew Judon to injured reserve on Saturday. While the hope is that he will return later in the season after suffering a biceps injury in Week 4, he might miss as much as two months — a loss for the Patriots both on and off the field, as linebackers coach Jerod Mayo pointed out.

“First and foremost I’ll say, without Judon out there, he kind of reminds me of myself as a player,” Mayo said. “When guys are kind of down, you try to pick them up, and when guys are up, you just try to remain neutral and bring them back to reality. So, it absolutely stinks not having him on the field, but he’ll be around the team.”

7. Bill Belichick is a big fan of Raekwon McMillan: The Patriots have been without off-ball linebacker Raekwon McMillan the entire season, and will not get him back until 2024. However, the former second-round draft pick does enjoy the support of Bill Belichick — that much has become obvious by now, and was also reaffirmed during his Friday press conference.

“Kwon’s been great. He’s been great,” Belichick said. “He’s been here basically every day other than some rehab he did at the end of August. He’s been here every day, engaged, involved. It helps him learn. He’s been a good voice of experience, knows the defense, knows the NFL, knows our situation, knows how we do things. He’s been a great help to the younger players, but also just kind of good leadership, good inspiration for all of us.

“He’s doing what he can do. He’s doing all he can to help the team, and I think everybody totally respects and appreciates that. He’s been awesome.”

McMillan joined the Patriots as a free agent in 2021, but has missed two of his first three seasons with the club due to injury. The hope is that he will become a steady contributor for the team next season.

8. Patriots fans expect the Bill Belichick era to come to an end soon: The Patriots have lost back-to-back games in blowout fashion, putting the team’s future both in the short and the long term in question. The latest edition of SB Nation’s Reacts survey focused on just that, specifically head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Mac Jones.

And as the results show, there is plenty of pessimism surrounding the two men:

Please sign up here to participate in future surveys.

9. Setting up the week ahead: The Patriots will fly back east shortly after their game in Las Vegas, but what the upcoming week will look like might be determined by the result against the Raiders. The traditional in-week schedule would mean a wrap-up day on Monday, followed by players getting a day off on Tuesday, followed by three days straight of practice and a walkthrough on Saturday.

Obviously, New England changed that schedule this week as part of its “starting over” campaign. So, it remains to be seen what exactly will happen. The core dates — practice Wednesday through Friday, walkthrough, game on Sunday — will remain unchanged, however.

The Patriots will then host the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 22, for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff.

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