FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Cunningham at QB: The Patriots have had an undrafted free agent make their opening-day 53-man roster for 19 consecutive years, which is tied with the Broncos for the longest streak in the NFL.
In a smaller-than-usual 2023 class, Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham represents the best chance for that streak to continue — and the possibilities as a dual-threat option are intriguing.
“He will be one of the most dynamic players when he’s on the field,” said Lance Taylor, Cunningham’s offensive coordinator at Louisville last season and currently Western Michigan’s head coach. “He can turn a bad play into a home run and a special play quicker than just about anyone I’ve seen, especially at the quarterback position. He’s so unique with his skill set.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around some great quarterbacks, with Cam Newton, and the Jets in the Rex Ryan era, and some great college quarterbacks. He’s one of the most dynamic and explosive playmakers that you will get.”
The 5-foot-11, 192-pound Cunningham started 47 games at Louisville, where former Patriots receiver Deion Branch serves as director of player development and alumni relations. He had been offered a scholarship by Alabama as a safety but chose Louisville because he wanted to play quarterback and follow in the footsteps of the Baltimore Ravens‘ Lamar Jackson.
He finished his career 692-of-1,105 for 9,664 yards with 70 touchdowns and 29 interceptions, but it was as a speedy and quick ball carrier that he dazzled most, totaling 619 carries for 3,184 yards and 50 touchdowns.
The Patriots, who finished 32nd in the red zone last season, 28th in first downs, and scored just 31 offensive touchdowns, could benefit from the type of sizzle that Cunningham provided in college.
Perhaps new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has a read-option package in mind. Maybe it’s a gadget play for a got-to-have-it situation. It could be game-planning and helping the defense when preparing to face dynamic quarterbacks like the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts, starting in Week 1. Or maybe it’s as simple as feeding the quarterback pipeline, which is always good business given the value of the position.
Cunningham is currently fourth on the New England depth chart behind Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe and the recently signed Trace McSorley. The Patriots have carried three quarterbacks on the opening-day roster each of the past four seasons, so there is a clear path for the Montgomery, Alabama, native to leapfrog McSorley and keep the team’s undrafted streak alive.
“I think he’s a quarterback, first and foremost. He absolutely has the skills and tools to be able to play at that level,” Taylor said. “Whatever role he’s asked to do, he’ll thrive in it. That’s one thing that I found with him, there wasn’t anything we could give him that he couldn’t do or figure out and be good at.”
Cunningham, who was a team captain in 2022, was one of the most sought-after free agents following the draft. His contract included $200,000 in guaranteed money, which is on par with a late-round draft pick.
“Malik is a great leader, prepares the right way, loves football, is a great teammate,” Taylor said. “He is a quiet leader, but when needed, he definitely can take command and be that vocal presence.
“I think one of the things that stood out to me when I first met him, we were going through summer conditioning workouts and he’s winning every single drill with receivers, running backs and skill guys, the fastest guys on our team. He’s a competitor.”
2. Bye bye: The Patriots don’t play an opponent coming off a bye in 2023, which some perceive as an advantage due to rest considerations. The Rams and 49ers, in contrast, play a league-high four opponents coming off their bye. This marks the first time since 2013 that the Patriots won’t face an opponent coming off a bye, according to ESPN analytics.
3. Rookies under the radar: First-round draft pick Christian Gonzalez and the rest of the Patriots’ rookie class arrived in town this past week for the remainder of the spring, and similar to every team but the Rams, they took part in a rookie minicamp. Coach Bill Belichick, who is never shy to be an outlier, was one of the few coaches to keep rookie minicamp practices closed to reporters; only the Patriots, Ravens and Raiders closed rookie practice to reporters. Belichick will open practice to reporters on May 25 for the first time.
4. Patriots’ legacy: How did NFL schedule makers view the Patriots coming off an 8-9 season? Onnie Bose, vice president of broadcasting, said of putting together New England’s schedule: “They have one game just about everywhere — on each of the prime-time packages, one international, one potential NFL Network, one CBS doubleheader, one Fox doubleheader — and I think that’s illustrative of a team that can play in a lot of places. The legacy of the team and competitiveness of the AFC East plays into that.”
5. Brady bucks: Patriots defensive tackle Davon Godchaux joked that Tom Brady’s return for the Patriots’ home opener against the Eagles, as part of an invitation from owner Robert Kraft so fans can thank him, meant that it would be a hot ticket. Turns out it’s currently the most in-demand ticket of the entire NFL season. According to Vivid Seats, the average ticket price for the game is $807, followed by Cowboys at 49ers ($501). Said Godchaux: “We want to get a win every game, but that game, we definitely have to get a win.”
6. Offseason check-in: There was a moment in the Patriots’ media workroom last week that reflects one of the primary benefits of the team’s voluntary offseason program (which enters its fifth week Monday). It came as linebacker/captain Ja’Whaun Bentley was answering questions from reporters and newly signed linebacker/core special teamer Chris Board waited off to the side. Bentley was asked about Board, which led to a chuckle between the two. As Bentley later said, a successful offseason program is when players start to build bonds that can carry them into the season.
7. Mac on the move: Running back James Robinson, who signed a two-year deal with the Patriots in free agency, took note of Jones at quarterback in the team’s offseason program. “That man can run for a long time,” Robinson said with a laugh. Robinson isn’t the only Patriot to take note of Jones’ conditioning and work ethic this offseason, but perhaps equally as notable was what someone else close to Jones relayed: Jones’ everyday demeanor seems closer to what teammates witnessed in his successful rookie season compared to last season’s struggle.
8. They said it: “At the end of draft day, [Patriots president] Jonathan [Kraft] and I were chatting, and I said, ‘This was a great, great draft. I’m really optimistic about the team.’ And he said, ‘You say that every year!’ But I really believe it. We were able to get the top seven picks that we had identified before the draft. I think it gives us a good balance of what our needs are. I think our free agent pickups and getting Bill O’Brien in will make a big difference.” — owner Robert Kraft, on NFL Network
9. Belichick and Navy: Given his close ties to the U.S. Naval Academy, the worst-case scenario for Belichick would have been for the Patriots to be playing a road game on Dec. 10, which would mean he’d be traveling with the team during the annual Army-Navy game, which will be held at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 9. Instead, the Patriots visit the Steelers on Thursday, Dec. 7, creating a mini-bye weekend for Belichick to enjoy the tradition-rich game at his home stadium.
10. Did you know?: The last time the Patriots kicked off a season at home against an NFC team — as they will in 2023 with a visit from the defending NFC champion Eagles — was in 2000. That was Belichick’s first year as the coach; New England lost at home to Tampa Bay 21-16. Furthermore, with the team hosting Miami in Week 2, this season marks the first time since 1995 that the team will open with two straight home games.