By the time Lance Taylor became the offensive coordinator at Louisville last season, he’d already worked with some of the best athletes in football. He was with the Carolina Panthers when Cam Newton was there. He was Stanford’s running backs coach when Christian McCaffrey was a member of the Cardinal.
But on his first day of spring practices at Louisville, Taylor saw something he’d never seen before. Each time the whole team lined up for sprints, quarterback Malik Cunningham was the first to finish. He beat the wide receivers, then the cornerbacks, egging on other groups, tempting someone to try to beat him in a race.
Taylor was in disbelief.
“And we had some speed on that roster — that’s what’s even more impressive about it,” said Taylor, who is now the head coach at Western Michigan. “I mean, we had some really good skill position players that he was outrunning. So that was impressive.”
After Cunningham, 24, went undrafted last month, Patriots coach Bill Belichick made the quarterback his top priority. It didn’t matter that Cunningham isn’t the type of quarterback Belichick has typically employed or that some scouts questioned whether he has the skills to be an NFL passer. The Patriots guaranteed Cunningham $200,000, the most they’ve doled out to an undrafted player in franchise history and a figure that yields Cunningham more guaranteed money than some draft picks.
The fascinating task now for Belichick, who has succeeded so many times in the past at finding roles for elite athletes, is to figure out how to use Cunningham.
In the past, Belichick has moved some college quarterbacks to other positions, most notably turning Julian Edelman into a wide receiver. But that doesn’t seem to be the initial plan for Cunningham.
At the Patriots’ open organized team activities last week, pictures released by the team indicated it’d only used Cunningham as a quarterback. (The Patriots’ OTA scheduled for Thursday was canceled because of a reported “violation of offseason rules,” so the first time the media will view practice is next week.)
So what could that mean?
There are two ways to look at Cunningham’s potential role in 2023. The more conservative possibility is that the Patriots know there’s an added emphasis on having a solid No. 3 quarterback as the NFL institutes a new rule that lets teams activate a third quarterback on game days without impacting the rest of the roster limit. (As part of the new rule, the third quarterback can’t enter the game unless the other two are injured.)
NFL teams can now dress third QB on game days
But the more compelling idea is that Belichick could be eyeing packages and formations specifically for Cunningham, perhaps as a way of fixing two of New England’s biggest offensive issues from a year ago. Last season, the Patriots ranked 27th in third-and-short situations, picking up a first down just 55 percent of the time. And they ranked last in the league in the percentage of red zone trips that led to a touchdown, finding paydirt just 42 percent of the time.
That could lead the New England coaches to spend at least some time this summer working with Cunningham on zone-read-focused packages that could help the team in those situations.
“Absolutely he could do that,” Pete Thomas, Cunningham’s position coach at Louisville, said. “We played in the ACC, and still, more often than not, he was the best athlete on the entire field. He’s very, very hard to tackle. Obviously, the NFL is a different level with that. But he ran away from a lot of NFL players in the ACC. So there’s no doubt in my mind that he could do all the zone reads or triple-option stuff in the NFL.
“And, obviously, he can throw the ball too since he threw for almost 10,000 yards in his career. He’s just one of those very unique athletes at the quarterback position that you don’t come across all the time. And he can do a lot of things that you can’t coach.”
Cunningham’s college coaches raved about the effort he put into improving his passing ability. They noted that even if there are accuracy concerns as he enters the NFL (he completed 62 percent of his passes in college), he took care of the football, throwing just 11 interceptions over his final two seasons against 59 total touchdowns. He averaged more than 5.0 yards per rushing attempt. So while the running game will always be his strength, they think he’s capable enough as a passer to force opponents to respect that in certain formations.
“He definitely put in a lot of work in that area,” Taylor said, “and he took it very seriously.”
Cunningham was a four-star recruit out of high school in Alabama. Nick Saban offered him a scholarship to play safety. But Cunningham was adamant he was a quarterback. He chose Louisville in part because he wanted to follow in Lamar Jackson’s footsteps.
That’s the goal in the NFL now, too. Of course, their resumes are vastly different. Jackson is one of only seven players to win a Heisman Trophy and an NFL MVP Award. He’s the highest-paid player in league history. So any comp between Cunningham and Jackson needs to come with several caveats. But those who know Cunningham say there’s a bit of Jackson in him.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s only one Lamar Jackson. He’s incredible, obviously,” Thomas said. “With that said, there’s also no doubt in my mind that Malik Cunningham is the closest thing you can get to Lamar without being Lamar. I mean, some of the stuff he did is incredible.
“I mean, some of the plays they made were very, very, very similar — just outrageously good, athletic plays. Again, those comparisons are there, for sure. And Malik is friends with Lamar and looks up to him and models his game after him a lot.”
A career like Jackson’s is a conversation for another time for Cunningham. His first goal is to find a way to make the Patriots’ roster as an undrafted player. His contract indicates they’ll certainly give him a chance. Plus, the Pats have had an undrafted player make their Week 1 roster for 19 straight years.
In Cunningham, they have a quarterback who was one of the fastest players at the Senior Bowl. Someone who accounted for 120 collegiate touchdowns (70 passing and 50 rushing). It’s unclear if he’ll be a good enough passer to be a full-time starter in the NFL. But he’s a good enough athlete to find a way onto the field.
“Belichick has always done a phenomenal job finding ways to use talent,” Taylor said. “So it’s not going to surprise me at all for him to make a 53-man roster because he’s talented and he’s a great football player. He will find a way to help a team.”
(Photo: Jamie Rhodes / USA Today)