As a result, the Patriots will have to look elsewhere for help on the defensive line.
Cunningham's suspension is an untimely hit for New England. The 2010 second-round draft choice was enjoying his most productive season as a pro, totaling 23 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a couple of fumble recoveries through 11 contests.
The ex-Florida Gator was already filling in for rookie first-rounder Chandler Jones, who missed the Week 12 game against the New York Jets with an ankle injury. If Jones' ankle woes linger, then the deepest position on the defensive side of the ball will look much scarcer.
This begs the question: Who could be called upon to contribute?
New England's depth at defensive end includes veteran Trevor Scott, rookie third-round pick Jake Bequette and undrafted rookie Justin Francis—none of which have had an extended opportunity to contribute this year.
Trevor Scott has played in nine games in 2012 and recorded six tackles, although Scott's greatest impact has come on special teams. The 28-year-old was productive during his first two seasons with the Oakland Raiders, accumulating 12 sacks. Unfortunately, Scott hasn't registered a sack since he tore his ACL 10 games into the 2010 season.
Jake Bequette has been inactive for all but two games this season, which suggests that head coach Bill Belichick and company are still waiting for the Arkansas product to adjust to the NFL game. Bequette was a dangerous rusher off the edge during his collegiate career, notching 23 sacks with the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Justin Francis has leapfrogged Bequette on the depth chart. The Rutgers Scarlet Knight has played in five games this season and has broken loose on multiple occasions, but he doesn't have much statistically to show for it. Thus far, Francis has one tackle on his NFL resume.
While the date for Jones' return is uncertain, Cunningham is not eligible to return until Dec. 24—one day after the Patriots play the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Consequently, Scott, Bequette and Francis will have to hold down the fort in the meantime.