The media gets only a limited opportunity to watch players practice during the regular season. There is a short window at the start of each session that allows for a brief stock-taking before the doors are closed for the rest of the event.
And while what happens after that has far more impact on the weekly game plan and personnel choices than what comes during that media window, every now and then it still allows for some observations. Such was the case on Wednesday, when Pats Pulpit’s own Brian Hines was present to see a change at the New England Patriots’ quarterback position.
The Patriots’ starter of the last two-and-a-half seasons, former first-round draft pick Mac Jones, was apparently relegated to a spot near the bottom of the depth chart. Second-year passer Bailey Zappe was the first man up in his place, and is reportedly being prepared to start the upcoming Week 13 game against the visiting Los Angeles Chargers.
The change atop the QB depth chart dominated the discourse since it happened, but it was not the only noteworthy development: Malik Cunningham was the only other player besides Zappe to throw passes at this point in the session.
For the presumed starter, his teammate — who is actually a few months his senior — does have the skillset to help out in various ways.
“Malik’s a great player. He’s dynamic, he can play everywhere on the field,” Zappe told reporters on Thursday. “That’s a great thing for him. He’s versatile, and he’s a great teammate, too. It’s awesome having him in the locker room.”
For Cunningham, his practice usage this week presents the next step in an intriguing journey. An undrafted rookie out of Louisville, the 25-year-old was a prolific dual-threat quarterback in college. However, when the Patriots brought him in, they started developing him at wide receiver.
He has spent a majority of his time since working at the position, but every now and then still appeared at quarterback. He lined up there twice in preseason, and in the Patriots’ regular season game against the Las Vegas Raiders; he did not attempt any passes or otherwise register any stats outside of a 5-yard sack that he took.
“He’s played mostly receiver, and he’s definitely improved at receiver,” said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien.
“He gets some reps at quarterback on the scout team, and things like that, but he’s played mostly at receiver and he’s got a lot better as a receiver. I do think it’s hard to learn both those positions — it’s not like learning right tackle and left guard. When you’re learning quarterback and wide receiver, it’s different. But I think he’s done a really admirable job in trying to do both.”
The Patriots’ coaching staff acknowledges the fact that learning two positions — including one that is entirely new to him — is a challenge. However, they seem to be pretty pleased with Cunningham’s development so far.
“He’s been handling the situation pretty well,” said wide receivers coach Troy Brown. “He’s able to handle a couple of different things at once. He is a quarterback, so he’s got to be able to handle a lot of multiple things. So, he should know what to do when it comes to receiver. If he’s in the quarterback meeting, he should know what the receiver’s doing anyway. But it’s been great having Malik.”
Fellow receivers coach Ross Douglas echoed those remarks, praising the youngster for his attitude and eagerness to learn. That is especially true at his second position — which, in terms of practice usage is actually his first one now.
“It’s a big challenge because you talk about a kid — even since playing peewee football — he’d never gotten into a wide receiver stance. So, you’re talking about taking someone from A to Z through the position,” Douglas said.
“So, it’s been a process, it’s been fun, and he’s gotten better. The thing where you judge rookie players, or any young player, on is are they getting better? And I think ever since he stepped in as an undrafted free agent out of Louisville, he has gotten better every day since he’s been here. ... He’s an improving young player, so he’s just got to continue on the same trajectory and good things will happen for him.”
What that trajectory will look like come this Sunday’s game against the Chargers remains to be seen. The Patriots did use him as a package player in the aforementioned game against the Raiders, but his impact was minimal.
With New England now seemingly having moved away from its Plan A at quarterback, however, everything seems to be on the table. And given how the offense as a whole has performed for much of the season — and the team’s 2-9 record — throwing Cunningham into the mix appears to make sense, too.
At the very least, it would allow the Patriots to insert something new and (possibly) exciting to what has otherwise been a pretty bland operation on that side of the ball.