Jermaine Cunningham's career with the Patriots began with a lot of hype and a great deal of promise. The same guy who racked up seven sacks in 11 SEC games during his senior year at Florida was expected to provide New England with the elite pass rusher they'd sought for so long. But those expectations soon seemed unrealistic.
After a solid rookie campaign off the edge in 2010, piling up 34 tackles and a sack in 15 games, big things were expected from the second-round pick in year two. But his sophomore campaign was a major letdow as he saw action in nine games but managed just a single tackle over the course of the entire season.
The horrid output seemed to signal the end of Cunningham's time in New England. Only a stellar training camp and some concrete signs of development could save the high-profile prospect's place with a perennial Super Bowl contender. And in the face of that adversity, Cunningham has finally emerged.
The expectations surrounding Cunningham are nowhere near those that the Patriots have for 2012 first-round pick Chandler Jones. While the two share a similar style game, Jones is a physical specimen and has shown since the very first day of rookie camp back in may that he can be that elite talent. But while Jones gets the praise, accolades and high hopes from Patriots faithful, Cunningham is slowly turning into a dangerous weapon in his own right.
Cunningham is developing his game as a pass rusher, which has been on display throughout training camp, and he appears to be in much better shape this season, which is likely a major factor in his resurgence.While training camp has allowed him to show off his improved skill set off the edge, Cunningham's most powerful presence has been felt on game days this preseason.
He has played in three of the Patriots four preseason games, and while Jones may have attracted most of the attention with his aggressive play it has been Cunningham that's had the most impact. He leads the entire Patriots defense with six quarterback hits this preseason and he's also racked up a pair of sacks in the process.
His presence was first felt during the second offensive series for Eagles at Gillette Stadium a little over a week ago. Mike Vick dropped back in a five-step drop and looked deep downfield. But as Vick was immediately flushed from the pocket by a rushing Kyle Love, Cunningham made a swift move to the outside and laid a lick on the quarterback that would immediately leave the Pro Bowler with badly bruised ribs and knock him out of the game permanently.
Ten days later, Cunningham is back in the thick of things against Eli Manning and the New York Giants. As Manning struggled to find a rhythm with his receivers against the Patriots defense, Cunningham decided it was time to make matters even worse. In the middle of the second quarter, the speedy end busted right through a block on the left side and found himself staring down an unsuspecting Manning. The sack resulted in even more frustration from the reigning Super Bowl champ, but it only continued to encourage Cunningham.
A couple more big hits on David Carr, including another gruesome sack later in the game, provided even more confidence not only for Cunningham, himself, but also from the coaching staff in his abilities. This preseason was a make-or-break scenario for the high-end talent, and while there are still plenty of casualties to come in anticipation of the final 53-man roster, Cunningham has more than lived up to the opportunity.
There are plenty of guys who don't deserve to be, but will inevitably be cut within the next few days. But while some will have to deal with that unfortunate fate, Cunningham's future should be sealed where it belongs — on the outside of New England's pass rush.