While the rookies certainly stole the show in the season opener, headlined with Chandler Jones’ strip sack and Dont’a Hightower’s fumble recovery for a touchdown, Cunningham had an equally impressive outing.
After being lauded by Bill Belichick, according to Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe, for his offseason efforts and putting together a head-turning preseason, Cunningham carried over his success into the regular season, registering a sack and drawing a holding penalty against the Titans last Sunday.
I think one of the things that affected Jermaine, like it did a lot of players, is not really having the offseason that he had this year...He didn't have that opportunity prior to the '11 season, and after the '10 season, at the end of the season, he had surgery on his shoulder, and that limited his offseason that year too. One of the things that's really helped Jermaine this year was right from the beginning, leaving at the end of last year when he was on IR, he trained very hard, he worked hard on all the aspects of his physical conditioning, strength, explosion, flexibility, all that. He had a real good offseason, had a good spring, that offseason led into a good spring, a good spring led into a good training camp, good training camp led into some production in the preseason and the first regular season game.
Since joining the Patriots as a second-round draft selection in 2010, Cunningham has been primarily featured as a defensive end or an outside linebacker, but like we saw in the preseason, Cunningham has taken on a new role in sub-packages being utilized as an interior rusher. Belichick explained Cunningham's new role (per Yates):
When you move players around, you create different match-ups. [You] just create a different match-up, get one of our productive players on the field, and fortunately he was able to make a couple big plays for us...The holding penalty he got on the quarterback draw was a big play, he knocked the quarterback down, got a couple pressures, made a couple plays at end. Try to get our productive players on the field and create some different match-ups for the offense to worry about."
With rookie standout Chandler Jones manning the right defensive end spot, Cunningham looks apt to unseat Rob Ninkovich at the left defensive end spot.
Cunningham (6'3'', 255 lbs) is more athletic and disruptive than Ninkovich (6'2'', 260 lbs), who may be better suited as a situational rusher as well as a solid backup to Hightower at the strong-side linebacker spot (a position that he excelled at during the 2011 season).
Imagine a four-man front consisting of Jones, Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Cunningham.
The Patriots brought in Cunningham two seasons ago in hope that he would become a starter along the line. Throughout preseason, he looked like the most talented pass-rusher on the team (led the team with two sacks) and also showcased the ability to set the edge against the run.
Last Sunday, he proved that he could be just as successful against starters in a regular-season contest.
Sounds like a starter to me.
James is a New England Patriots featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JamesDiMaio for more news and updates.