Mike ReissESPN Staff Writer4 Minute Read
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — What will undrafted rookie quarterback Malik Cunningham do for an encore?
Cunningham did something unique in the Patriots’ preseason opener by playing 10 snaps at wide receiver and then 17 at quarterback, leading an impressive 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter with dazzling running and pinpoint passing that ended with him scoring on a 9-yard run.
Although he wasn’t targeted as a receiver, he completed 3 of 4 passes for 19 yards and rushed five times for 34 yards. His one incompletion might have been his best throw — an on-the-move toss to the end zone that should have been caught by Tre Nixon for a 21-yard touchdown.
Jabrill Peppers, the veteran safety, jokingly said of the throw: “It was a dart; it made me ask if he went to Dartmouth!”
Last season, there was just one instance in which a player logged double-digit snaps at receiver and quarterback — when Taysom Hill had 11 apiece for the New Orleans Saints in a 24-0 win over the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 8. Hill had 10 carries for 61 yards that day, was 1-of-1 passing for 2 yards and added one reception for 11 yards.
Cunningham has generated early momentum to be a Hill-type option for the Patriots, even working as a gunner on the punt coverage team.
“It’s awesome to see he can bring another element of the game for us,” veteran receiver Kendrick Bourne said.
“I don’t know a lot of quarterbacks that are covering down on punts. You have to respect the kid’s approach and attitude,” longtime captain Matthew Slater said.
“I think it’s a very unique thing,” added defensive back Myles Bryant. “For him to be able to play quarterback and then go out to receiver, he has an understanding of what the offense wants as a whole. I’m excited to see what he ends up doing.”
The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Cunningham delivered excitement on a regular basis in college at Louisville, with Cardinals offensive coordinator Lance Taylor remarking that he “can turn a bad play into a home run and a special play quicker than just about anyone I’ve seen.”
Cunningham finished his college career 692-of-1,105 for 9,664 passing yards with 70 touchdowns and 29 interceptions, while adding 619 carries for 3,184 yards and 50 rushing touchdowns.
After going undrafted, the Patriots guaranteed him $200,000 to join the team as a free agent, which is on par with what a late-round draft pick receives. He has spent the majority of his time with receivers in training camp, but more recently, he has been expanding his quarterback work in practice, sparking intrigue on what creative offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien might be planning for him.
Cunningham’s dynamic playmaking ability has been a topic of discussion among teammates.
“When you think of Louisville quarterbacks, you think of Lamar Jackson. He showed me how he compared some of his stats to Lamar and I was like ‘Wow.’ Malik is the real deal — even when it comes to playing wideout,” said Bryant, the fourth-year defensive back.
“It’s fun,” veteran receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster added. “That dude is electric. When the football is in his hands as a quarterback, he is a very dangerous player.”
While Cunningham showed that in the preseason opener, it came late in the game against the Texans, versus players who likely won’t be on Houston’s regular-season roster. Thus, the question remains whether Cunningham can produce similar results against higher-level competition.
If he shows he can, he would position himself to join a rare fraternity.
Over the past 15 seasons, the Saints’ Hill (2022), the Jets’ Brad Smith (2010) and the Browns’ Josh Cribbs (2009) are the only players to total 50 or more snaps at both quarterback and receiver in a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That doesn’t include Drew Brees (2018) and Chad Pennington (2008), who aligned at receiver but primarily for alignment purposes and not to carry out the responsibilities of the position.
Of his debut, Cunningham said: “I just felt like my running ability gave us a little more options on offense to open it up, so they didn’t know if we were going to pass or run. That was pretty fun.”
Will the fun continue Saturday night?