Each season since 2004, the Patriots have had at least one undrafted free agent make the team’s roster coming out of training camp. In 2023, Malik Cunningham is one of several players vying to keep that streak going.
Cunningham, 24, was signed by New England immediately following the end of the NFL Draft. A quarterback at the college level, he has worked mostly as a wide receiver so far with the Patriots. Added to that, Cunningham has recently been given practice reps at quarterback.
Though he’s far from a lock to make the final 53-player roster, the rookie will likely get his share of opportunities during the preseason, given that Bill Belichick told reporters he expects “the players who are least experienced will get the most playing time.”
Cunningham scored the Patriots’ lone touchdown of the game on Thursday against the Texans with 1:54 left in the fourth quarter, shaking multiple defenders on a 9-yard run.
Here are a few things to know about Cunningham:
He was starred at quarterback in high school
Cunningham grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. Playing for Park Crossing High School, he amassed 6,276 yards and 71 touchdowns through the air while adding 1,926 yards and 32 scores on the ground.
As a senior, Cunningham helped Park Crossing to a 13-1 record and a run to the Class 6-A state semifinals. He led the team’s attack, throwing 30 touchdown passes while adding 19 more as a rusher.
At season’s end, he was a finalist for Alabama’s Mr. Football Award and was named the Class 5A-7A All-Metro Player of the Year by the Montgomery Advertiser.
He received offers from several top programs
Cunningham committed to Louisville in the spring of 2016, but only after a competitive recruiting process.
He reportedly received offers from a wide range of college football programs: Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU, Memphis, Purdue, Troy, Tulane, and UAB.
According to college recruiting site Rivals, Cunningham was a four-star prospect. While he came from Alabama, Cunningham was not offered a scholarship by the Crimson Tide, though Nick Saban tried him out as a defensive back.
“It’s a good fit for me and the offense they run,” Cunningham said after committing to Louisville. “My major is in business tech, so that was a good fit for me. It was a family fit when I get down there and I know P.J. [Blue], my [high school] teammate.”
Cunningham has drawn comparisons to (and has interacted with) Lamar Jackson
When Cunningham arrived on campus at Louisville in 2017, it was in the immediate wake of then-Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy.
The two players were compared to each other given that they overlapped (though Cunningham was a redshirt freshman during Jackson’s final season).
But considering the towering heights of Jackson’s achievements — Heisman at the college level, MVP in the NFL — Cunningham has kept things in perspective.
“Lamar’s a player not from this earth. He’s very different,” he said of Jackson at the 2023 Senior Bowl. “I enjoy the comparison. I love that, but we’re both our own players. I do pattern my game on him. It’s a blessing to be able to be in the same category as him. He’s where I want to get at. I’m blessed to have him in my corner.”
During his years at Louisville, Cunningham did manage to equal and even exceed Jackson in a few categories. He eventually broke his predecessor’s school record for total career touchdowns, a feat that drew both congratulations and praise from the Ravens quarterback.
He finished his Louisville career with a 62.6 percent completion percentage, 9,660 passing yards, 70 passing touchdowns, and 29 interceptions. Cunningham added 3,179 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns on the ground (including an impressive 20 in 13 games in the 2021 season).
The Patriots paid a notable amount of money to sign
While Cunningham was not judged to be an elite quarterback prospect by NFL scouts, his talent was still undeniable. He ran a 4.53 40-yard dash time at the rookie combine, one of the fastest times by a quarterback at this year’s event.
“Teams will need to decide how Cunningham would fit into an offense, but his ability to make explosive plays with his legs should not be discounted,” wrote NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein.
Still, NFL teams skipped him in the draft (he was picked in the third round of the USFL draft by the Birmingham Stallions, but opted not to sign).
The Patriots didn’t waste time pursuing him, however, and quickly locked Cunningham into a historic deal.
According to NFL reporter Doug Kyed, New England signed Cunningham to a contract that included $200,000 in guaranteed money with a $30,000 signing bonus, a record amount for a Patriots undrafted free agent.
He’s trying to take Julian Edelman’s advice, and has impressed at training camp
Cunningham has drawn plaudits for his work ethic and for being a “playmaker,” according to Mac Jones. He was also fortunate enough to run into a fellow college quarterback-turned-NFL wide receiver, Julian Edelman.
The now-retired Patriot gave Cunningham some advice during a visit to the team facility earlier in training camp.
“He came in the training room. He told me to just keep my head down, keep working, just keep learning from the older guys and just keep being a sponge with everything,” Cunningham said of Edelman. “You can learn so much throughout the building as a receiver, a quarterback, just learning from the defensive guys and what they’re thinking, different coverages. Just picking their brains. It’s been fun.”
After spending most of his time with the receivers, Cunningham recently started to get some reps at quarterback.
Whether or not that equates with preseason playing time under center — or if it’s merely a scout team device — remains to be seen. In either case, Cunningham is a talented and intriguing player to keep an eye on during the Patriots’ preseason schedule.
Hayden Bird can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.