New England Patriots rookie quarterback Malik Cunningham is receiving some reps at wide receiver during OTAs, according to multiple reports. Cunningham is a high-end athlete, so finding different ways to utilize him as an offensive playmaker is a worthy exercise for head coach Bill Belichick.
A prolific quarterback at Louisville, Cunningham joined the Patriots via undrafted free agency at the conclusion of the 2023 NFL Draft. Cunningham’s deal with the Patriots included a whopping $200,000 in guaranteed money, per Aaron Wilson. That’s late-round draft pick money. The Patriots are invested in Cunningham’s success, hence the creativity they’re currently displaying with his usage.
One of the most decorated athletes in program history, Cunningham made 47 career starts for the Cardinals. Cunningham threw for 9,664 yards, 70 touchdowns, and 29 interceptions. But it was as a scrambler that Cunningham made his presence felt as Louisville’s ultimate competitor.
A dual-threat playmaker, Cunningham dazzled as an electric runner by adding an additional 3,184 yards and 50 touchdowns to his offensive totals. Cunningham is a flat-out weapon in the open field with game-changing speed, impressive vision, and the toughness necessary to break tackles. He is a playmaker in every sense of the word.
Cunningham entered training camp as the fourth quarterback on New England’s roster. Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe are the clear No. 1 and 2 signal-callers. Veteran journeyman Trace McSorley is also on the team. The Patriots do typically carry three quarterbacks, so there’s hope for Cunningham to convince Belichick to hold onto him into September.
Cunningham lacks the size (5-foot-11, 192 pounds) necessary to thrive as a signal-caller at the NFL level. He was never a traditional quarterback at Louisville. The Patriots are exploring alternative methods to getting Cunningham on the field. How the New Orleans Saints have utilized do-it-all weapon Taysom Hill potentially provides an example for the Patriots to follow.
The Patriots fielded the 32nd-ranked red-zone offense last season. The league’s worst-ranked red-zone offense scored just 31 offensive touchdowns in 17 regular-season contests. New offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has been hired to improve the offense. A creative package that creates mismatch opportunities for Cunningham could lead to fruitful results.
Ignoring the elephant in the room here would be misleading. College football players rarely make a successful transition from position to position. For every Hill or Julian Edelman, there are more failed experiments ala Tyree Jackson or J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. The chances of Cunningham developing into an every-down receiver are statistically low, but Cunningham does have the athletic upside to warrant an occasional manufactured touch.
Making the Patriots’ roster as a traditional receiver wouldn’t be an easy feat either. Free-agent addition JuJu Smith-Schuster is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver. A sophomore Tyquan Thornton is expected to take a step forward. DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne are locks.
There’s an unknown element to Cunningham’s upside at receiver. Making a full-blown transition seems unlikely, but the Patriots are exploring non-traditional opportunities for a non-traditional quarterback. Malik Cunningham is athletic enough to develop into a usable NFL weapon for an offense that needs to think outside the box.