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Film Room: Can Malik Cunningham and Young Talent Spark Patriots Offense?

The Patriots haven’t scored a touchdown since Week 3 when Pharaoh Brown exploited a coverage bust in the 2nd quarter against the Jets. They’ve generated the 3rd-fewest 20+ yard receptions in the league, and the offense has scored one field goal in their past two games while allowing three touchdowns. Something needed to change offensively, and with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Demario Douglas both out with concussions, New England seems to be giving other receivers opportunities.

After Bill Belichick told reporters quarterback/wide receiver Malik Cunningham was on the verge of getting in-game opportunities, reports surfaced that Bill O’Brien’s been working on packages specifically for the dual threat.

Not only was Cunningham brought up to the 53-man roster, but he was signed to a three-year deal. The sought-after undrafted free agent showed electric open-field ability this summer, and his poise in limited dropbacks was impressive. Cunningham has mostly trained at receiver, but Belichick said he’s been “competent” when given plays at quarterback, and Mac Jones is on a short leash in the midst of a turnover spree.

The Patriots added even more juice to the offense by activating Tyquan Thornton (shoulder) from injured reserve and elevating Jalen Reagor from the practice squad for a second time this season.

Nose tackle Jeremiah Pharms was also brought up for a third straight game as depth behind Davon Godchaux, meaning he cannot be elevated again this season.

New England made space for Cunningham and Thornton by placing Matthew Judon and Tyrone Wheatley Jr. on injured reserve. Judon’s move was expected after he suffered a torn bicep in Week 4, and Wheatley Jr. had been a healthy scratch since Week 3 before popping up on the injury report with a knee injury on Friday.

Reagor’s elevation could be more of a depth move, as he didn’t record a snap after being brought up in Week 2 against the Dolphins. If we do see the former Eagle and Viking, it would likely be in more of a gadget role.

Kayshon Boutte filled in at X for DeVante Parker in Week 1 but had several rookie moments and has been  a healthy scratch since, so I would set expectations low until proven otherwise.

That said, if Boutte has caught up and begun replicating the impressive flashes we saw from him this summer in practice, it’s always possible we see him sprinkled in on the outside.

Expectations should also be tempered for Tyquan Thornton, who struggled to crack the starting lineup before having a crucial offseason cut short by injury. But with the Patriots’ most explosive receiver out in Douglas and Smith-Schuster’s snaps needing to be filled, Thornton is almost guaranteed chances to spark a lethargic passing game.

We won’t know what O’Brien’s got cooked up until after kickoff, but Cunningham’s use this preseason and Thornton’s rookie flashes give us an idea of how they could be used in their season debuts.

How Malik Could Be Unleased

Cunningham spent most of his snaps at wideout this summer, mostly lining up outside as a “Z” receiver. He was 3rd on the Patriots with eight targets during the preseason, but his only reception was a screen that lost a yardage. While his quarterbacks’ ball placement was less than helpful, Cunningham very much looked like someone adjusting to a new position. His routes weren’t very convincing, and he couldn’t finish catches through contact.

Belichick acknowledged these struggles when asked about the rookie, noting that Cunningham “Never played receiver and that [along with his work in the kicking game] didn’t look very good either in the spring.” But the head coach seemed encouraged by Cunningham’s growth since then, going on to say, “he’s really improved there. He can catch the ball, but just route-running and finding zones and things like that. It’s come pretty naturally to him.”

Cunningham looked his best this summer when running with the football, averaging 6.5 yards/rush on six preseason carries. All of these came from his designated position of quarterback, forcing two missed tackles and scrambling for a highlight-reel touchdown to end the preseason opener.

Facing 3rd & 6 from the Texans’ low Red Zone, the Patriots dial up quick-game from an empty backfield. Houston smothers New England’s man-beating concept, but rather than forcing a throw, Cunningham spots a lane and makes a play. He jukes two defenders, keeps his balance through a shoestring tackle, and dips under another hit for six points.

Cunningham’s other runs came on zone reads, which challenged defenses laterally, or RPOs from empty, which hit inside.

One of the traits that stood out most to me in these plays was his ability to avoid big hits, which is critical for the 6’1″, 198 lber. Cunningham’s slipperiness and burst make it difficult to square him up, which can lead to embarrassing moments for defenders.

Whether his rushing ability is unleashed on quarterback runs, after the catch, or something trickier, Cunningham is at his most dangerous when carrying the ball in space.

Cunningham didn’t throw much this summer, with his dropbacks limited to end-of-game drives in the preseason opener and finale. but his pocket presence, decisiveness, and accuracy were hard to miss.

Multiple plays didn’t play out how they were drawn up, but Cunningham overcame these disruptions without flinching. The best example of this came on a dropped pass that should’ve been a long touchdown.

The Patriots go play action on 3rd & 2 in scoring territory, but Andrew Stueber allows quick penetration off the left edge. Cunningham scrambles to buy time for Tre Nixon downfield, then uncorks a perfect deep ball while on the move to throw his receiver open.

Cunningham ended the preseason with a deceivingly pedestrian stat line, 3-6 for 19 yards with one sack taken. This sample size isn’t enough to determine how good or bad he’d be throwing against a starting defense, but another blowout and/or turnover-filled performance from Mac Jones could create an opportunity for the former Louisville quarterback.

Can Tyquan Take Off?

Tyquan Thornton was the talk of Foxborough during his rookie training camp, looking like one of a disjointed offense’s few bright spots. That hype carried over to the field during the preseason, with Thornton showing moments of impressive separation ability on top of his rare speed. That progress was disrupted by an injury that forced Thornton to start the season on injured reserve, where he would be until Week 5.

The receiver had some promising flashes, with most coming on intermediate routes against off-coverage, but he and Mac Jones struggled to connect on the deep shots most envisioned when Thornton was drafted. Physicality and finishing at the catch-point were also significant areas for concern.

There were high hopes for the former 2nd-round pick under Bill O’Brien, who had success with a receiver who profiled somewhat similarly in Will Fuller, but Thornton battled injury, old struggles persisted in training camp, and he couldn’t crack the starting lineup. He went on to string solid practices together and had an impressive catch on a hole shot against the Texans, but a shoulder injury during joint practices in Green Bay led to another delayed start.

Thornton’s lack of consistent availability and production makes him a tough player to rely on. And coming off of another injury, it’s unclear how big of a workload he can manage. But with the Patriots starved for explosiveness or even just a spark offensively, he’s in prime position to make a statement in Vegas.

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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