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Why Patriots' Malik Cunningham is the NFL's Most Fascinating Undrafted Free Agent in 2023

No NFL team can be linked with more undrafted free agent success in the last two decades than the New England Patriots. At least one has made their initial 53-man roster dating back 19 consecutive seasons, with key contributors like Malcolm Butler, Jakobi Meyers, David Andrews, Adam Butler, Randall Gay, and Jonathan Jones leading the pack. Among this year's crop of UDFA's in Foxborough is Malik Cunningham out of Louisville. Although one of the most prolific and dynamic signal callers in program history, the 24-year-old was seen at the opening media access edition of OTAs running wide receiver drills.

Given Cunninham's raw athleticism, experience at quarterback, and clear willingness to try a new position for a chance to make an NFL roster, he's easily the player I'm interested to see progress the most this summer, anywhere in the league. Given that the Patriots dished out $200,000 to secure him on the open market, the most they've ever spent on a UDFA, that would tell me they have to like him at least a little bit. With that said here's why I ultimately think the Louisville product has a real shot to get the Patriots' UDFA streak to two decades on the dot.


Raw Speed and Tools

When you look at Cunningham, he isn't the biggest quarterback you've ever seen at a fraction under 6'0 and 192 lbs, which ranks in the third and zeroth percentile respectively among quarterbacks. But what he lacks in size he makes up for in speed, and there's a ton of juice in that department. Cunningham has 4.56 speed, which paired with his elusiveness and vision in the open field made him borderline unstoppable at Louisville as a runner.

What you just saw was one of 50, yes 50, rushing touchdowns Cunningham put up at Lousiville. Over the last two seasons alone he put up 32 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 5.5 yards a carry. That alone makes him an intriguing player, but fumbles have been an issue in the past, specifically putting the ball on the turf three times in 2020. Fumbles were a bit of an issue for Patriots wideouts last year as well on the subject. Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, and Nelson Agholor combined for five total with three of them resulting in turnovers. But getting back to the positives, Cunningham has repeatedly shown that when he has the ball in his hands he is a threat to take it for six nearly every time. He anticipates and sees how things are going to break down in front of him very well and lets his legs do the rest. No better example of that than his mind-numbing 71-yard score against Duke in 2021.

Another big trait when talking about any position is hand size, and Cunningham gets a passing grade there as both a quarterback and receiver. With 9.5-inch hands (a hair below the 60th percentile), that puts him on level with some notable pass catchers like Allen Robinson, Cooper Kupp, Jerry Juedy, and former Patriot Jakobi Meyers. And funny enough, Cunningham was close to having to deal with the position he now occupies. Nick Saban was knocking down his door to come to Tuscaloosa to play safety but ended up at Lousiville because they afforded him the chance to be a college quarterback. So safe to say Cunningham has some range to him athletically if Saban thought he could potentially stick as a defensive back.


On a final note, I wanted to go back to see if I could find anything about Julien Edelman's transition from being a college quarterback to an NFL wide receiver, and I found these Bill Belichick quotes that instantly stuck out from Edelman's 'A Football Life'.

"[Edelman] couldn't throw the ball, but he was hard to tackle, and he was very competitive and very tough...that led to multiple workouts...worked him out as a running back, worked him out as a reciever, worked him out as a punt returner."
"You know when you get to the end of the draft, you're looking for guys that have traits, more so than elite talent"

Save for the fact that Cunningham didn't end up getting drafted proper, this feels like a very similar situation. Not that Cunningham is Edelman per se, but that first thing Belichick mentioned specifically is something you can easily say about both guys. Plus the Patriots did reportedly meet with him pre-draft in some capacity.


So Far So Good

Since we've only had one chance to physically see the Patriots during OTAs so far, there isn't much to go off of in terms of where Cunningham is at currently. He got some looks in 7v7 and 11v11 reps the other day via the boots on the ground out in Foxborough, and his one grab was play of the day worthy according to some of those in attendance such as Zack Cox and Mark Daniels. Unforntualey there doesn't appear to be any video of said catch, however. One of Cunningham's newest teammates Tyquan Thornton was also asked about what he saw from the converted QB after practice had wrapped up and had this to say.

“Seeing [Cunningham] doing the things he’s doing at receiver, it’s a thumbs up from me,”

Now in all fairness, we've yet to see Cunninham line up out wide in pads and won't be for a while, and there are a ton of intricacies and skills he needs to figure out as he continues to get more reps in. Mainly route running, working through press coverage, release off the line, etc, but that seems like a solid endorsement in an admittedly small/limited sample size.


Added Wrinkles

On top of the fact that Belichick dished out some good UDFA money to get Cunningham in the building and the new third quarterback rule, I think there's some legitimate gadget player upside with Cunningham that could get him regular-season snaps at quarterback, and I say quarterback for this reason. Look at what teams have done with Jacoby Brissett in short-yardage situations in the past, and more prominently Jalen Hurts and the Eagles did just last year. I think there is value in bringing in Cunningham in either short-yardage situations, or maybe even goal-to-go situations under center, and basing a half-dozen-ish play package of QB sneaks, draws, or decoys of either, and letting him go to work under center as a runner.


Just off of last year, here's how the Patriots and Eagles stacked up on both third and fourth down in short-yardage (1-3 yards) situations just to give an idea of how vanilla things were here with Matt Patricia calling the shots. Also want to stress that the Eagles were perhaps the single best team in football here a season ago with a better run game and offensive front, but roll with me here.


3rd and Short in 2022

Team

Total Plays

Avg. Yards to 1st Down

Pass Plays Called

Run Plays Called

1st Downs Picked Up

Conversion Rate

Eagles

73

1.8

21

52

48

65.8%

Patriots

61

1.8

34

27

34

55.7%

4th and Short

Team

Total Plays

Avg. Yards to 1st Down

Pass Plays Called

Run Plays Called

1st Downs Picked Up

Conversion Rate

Eagles

25

1.7

7

18

20

80%

Patriots

11

1.6

10

1

6

54.5%

What I'm arguing for here is not what the Saints do, and force Taysom Hill down the throats of the American football viewing public at every possible opportunity. But if the Patriots were to find themselves in No Man's Land or the red zone, Cunningham could be an occasional option to help extend some drives, just some food for thought. Of course, there's the possibility of him getting snaps as a trick play passer, but for what it's worth, Kendrick Bourne has gotten reps in that role in the past. Either way, I'm fascinated to see how things progress with the Lousiville product as we get closer to camp opening up. With his raw athleticism and tools, I think he has a real shot to make this team one way or another.


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