Jermaine Cunningham: Second-Year Player Could Be New England Patriots' Key

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIMay 8, 2011

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 14:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is hurried by Jermaine Cunningham #96 of the New England Patriots during the game on November 14, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Days one, two and three saw the NFL draft. The days since have seen the questions come rolling in.

Why didn't the New England Patriots take a pass rusher? How are they going to fix the rush? Are they going to sign a free agent? Is there a trade in the works?

Speculation abounds on who could be coming in, but the answer might already be there. The 2011 season will be Jermaine Cunningham's second, and it may be his first as a vital cog in the New England defense.

Very little is more futile than trying to predict what Bill Belichick is going to do. This year, however, seemed a slam dunk. The inability to get to the quarterback was the one weakness that plagued an otherwise sturdy 14-2 team, so the AFC East champions, with six picks in three rounds, were surely going to spend their resources in trying to find someone who could break into the pocket in less than 18 seconds.

Wrong, and now the next step would seem to be waiting for the lockout to end so the other shoe can drop and the Patriots can spend big money on a proven star in free agency.

Belichick might just think he has the answer already. Cunningham appears to have the most potential on the roster to develop into a pure pass rusher, a playmaking menace that the offense has to notice and account for every single play of the game.

In just his second season, Cunningham may have to cash in a lot of that potential for honed skill.

He has shown those talents in snapshots already. In the 23-20 overtime victory over Baltimore in week six, Cunningham had his most impressive game yet, totaling six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. It seemed to mark his returning to form after missing all of the preseason with a high ankle sprain.

That was it for highlights for the rookie, however. Cunningham played in 11 more games, including the playoffs, but registered no tackles in three of them and didn't have a sack in any.

Belichick might be hitching the defense to the Florida product. If so, he'll have to be a lot better than that.

The pass-rushing role is no longer a luxury. With each year, we see a correlation between the ability to get to the quarterback and the team that takes home, or at least plays for, the Lombardi Trophy.

The Packers could get to the quarterback, as could the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Saints could, too, and the same for the Giants and Colts. Heck, even the Patriots, with Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel in their championship years, could make quarterbacks uneasy.

For the Patriots to get back to that level, they'll need to be able to provide heat up front. And with the draft over and New England routinely reluctant to buy big on the open market, that could pass the opportunity down to the current Patriots, especially the 53rd overall pick of the 2009 draft. The future could be now.