FOXBOROUGH — The narrative that the Patriots don’t have a quarterback competition in this training camp is simply not true.
And with one preseason game in the books, the competition is just about over with.
No, it’s not a battle for Mac Jones’s starting job. And Bailey Zappe seems to have a firm grasp on the backup role. But the fight for the No. 3 spot that looked like it would go to veteran Trace McSorley can instead be safely called for his challenger.
That would be Malik Cunningham, the undrafted rookie who has been the buzz of the Patriots since last Thursday night’s preseason opener against Houston.
“That dude is electric,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said Sunday. “When the football is in his hands as a quarterback, he’s very dangerous, as you could see this past Thursday night.”
Cunningham completed only 3 of 4 passes for 19 yards, and rushed just five times for 34 yards. But he provided a spark that hasn’t been seen with the Patriots offense in the last three years. Cunningham escaped three defenders on his 9-yard scoring run, the Patriots’ only touchdown of the night.
And did you see that throw to Tre Nixon? Rolling to his right, throwing off his back foot, 35 yards on the money to the receiver, who ruined the highlight by dropping the touchdown pass.
“Definitely was a dart,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “Made me ask if he went to Dartmouth.”
Cunningham isn’t going to challenge Jones or Zappe on the depth chart as a rookie. But in three short months, he has transformed from a player who maybe could crack the practice squad to one who absolutely must be kept on the 53-man roster.
There is no way the Patriots could stash Cunningham on the practice squad now. Another team surely would snag him. The secret is out.
Cunningham is simply too athletic and too team-oriented for the Patriots to cut loose. He has earned his way onto this team with his playmaking skills and, most importantly to Bill Belichick, his versatility.
“Proud of him, man,” receiver Kendrick Bourne said. “Stepping in the game and making plays, it was just awesome to see he can bring another element of the game for us.”
You probably know Cunningham’s back story at this point: four-year starting quarterback at Louisville, threw 70 touchdown passes and rushed for 50, but didn’t get drafted because he’s undersized at 6 feet 1 inch and an erratic thrower. The Patriots signed him after the draft to a three-year, near-minimum contract with just $200,000 guaranteed.
The Patriots viewed Cunningham potentially as another Julian Edelman. Cunningham said in June that the Patriots were the only team before the draft to work him out at receiver, and that’s where he spent most of his time during the spring.
Cunningham still worked a little at quarterback on his own after practices, but it wasn’t until the last couple of weeks of training camp that he started seeing action during team drills.
Cunningham is clearly running behind Jones and Zappe, and for a bit was probably trailing McSorley, a fifth-year journeyman. But McSorley probably shouldn’t get too comfortable; there really is no reason to keep him over Cunningham.
McSorley is a traditional pocket passer and doesn’t bring much to the table other than being able to run a semblance of the Patriots’ regular offense. He is the type of quarterback whose number you keep on a short list in case of emergency. But he doesn’t need to take up a roster spot.
Cunningham, though, does everything. He can run. He can throw. He’s learning receiver. The Patriots are using him as a gunner on the punt team. He can mimic dual-threat QBs like Jalen Hurts and Anthony Richardson for the scout team. On Monday, the Patriots used Cunningham as a fill-in running back during OL/DL drills.
For an offense that finished 22nd in points last year, Cunningham is one of the few electric runners on the team. The Patriots don’t have the luxury of being able to release a player like that, even if Cunningham may be a bit undersized and raw as a quarterback.
And for a team that finished 32nd in the red zone (touchdowns on 42.2 percent of opportunities), Cunningham’s fit as a wildcat quarterback could spur major improvement. Having a mobile QB forces the defense to play 11-on-11, not 11-on-10, and that can be especially dangerous near the goal line.
Cunningham isn’t ready to be a full-time quarterback, but the Patriots don’t need him to be one. As ESPN’s Pat McAfee said, “There’s going to be a Malik Cunningham package. I’m pumped about that.” Think of the Saints from a few years ago, when Taysom Hill would periodically spell Drew Brees.
The Patriots seem especially impressed with Cunningham’s willingness to do whatever it takes to make the team, particularly at gunner, which he obviously never played in college.
“In my experience here, those are the Patriots, the guys that just do whatever they’re asked,” longtime captain Matthew Slater said. “What’s impressed me the most has been his attitude. You never hear him grumble or anything like that.
“I don’t know a lot of quarterbacks that are covering down punts as the gunner, so you’ve got to respect the kid’s approach and attitude.”
Cunningham still has a long way to go. One exciting performance in the fourth quarter of the first exhibition game does not mean he’s about to become a fantasy football star. Or that he’s going to challenge Jones and Zappe.
But Cunningham has made it impossible for the Patriots to release him. And if he keeps it up, he’s going to make it tough for them to keep him off the game-day roster.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.