FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots' defensive line depth took a hit Monday when the NFL announced that Jermaine Cunningham has been suspended four games without pay for violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
According to a league source, Cunningham tested positive for Adderall, which is commonly prescribed to individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or attention deficit disorder (ADD).
However, the league does not announce which substance triggered the failed test, so players can say it was for whatever they choose; since the 2012 season began, the NFL has suspended two dozen players for violation of its PED policy, and many of those players have blamed Adderall.
Under league rules, if a player is documented as requiring the drug, and has a prescription and a therapeutic use exemption for Adderall, then he can use it without penalty. Without those things, he is subject to suspension for one failed test.
Cunningham is the second Patriots player this month to be suspended for PEDs, following rookie running back Brandon Bolden. Linebacker Brandon Spikes was suspended for the last four games of the 2010 season, when he was a rookie.
And new Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib received a PED suspension while still a member of the Buccaneers, and was unable to join the Patriots until Nov. 12, more than a week after he was traded to New England, because of the suspension.
Adderall is an amphetamine; individuals who take it without a medical need sometimes do so as a means of staying up (think students cramming for exams) and focusing. However, it can also increase blood flow and oxygen, and in some people it raises the heart rate to dangerous levels.
Cunningham, a second-round pick out of Florida in 2010, entered this season facing a likely make-or-break campaign. He has been a consistent contributor on defense, playing in every game and on 58 percent of the snaps.
Cunningham was also one of the Patriots' offseason award winners, given annually by the staff to players who had stellar attendance and made great progress in the weight room and on the field during organized team activities.
Coach Bill Belichick has spoken highly of Cunningham and his contributions thus far this season several times since training camp. Cunningham has been used in a few different ways on the defensive line and has 2½ sacks.
Last year he played in just nine games and appeared to take a step back from his rookie season; he was inactive for three games and then placed on injured reserve Dec. 11 with a hamstring injury.
Cunningham's base salary this year is $540,000, so the suspension will cost him $127,058.
The suspension was announced after Belichick's conference call with media Monday.
In the locker room, the prevailing sentiment among defensive players was that this is a "next man up" situation.
"I don't even know what's going to happen as far as depth chart or whatever, but I'm definitely going to be ready," veteran defensive end Trevor Scott said.
Scott likely will see an uptick in playing time. He missed the Rams game and the second Bills game with a hamstring injury. Rookies Justin Francis and Jake Bequette also could get more snaps.
The undrafted Francis has been active for six of the last seven games after being inactive for the first four games of the season. Bequette, a third-round pick, has only been in uniform for two games to this point.
Linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who praised Cunningham during training camp for showing more maturity and trying to improve, didn't want to comment on the suspension, but he said others will have to step up.
One thing that certainly could help the Patriots is getting rookie Chandler Jones back. Jones suffered an apparent sprained ankle against the Colts and did not play against the Jets on Thanksgiving.
It is unknown how severe Jones's sprain is. A better indication of his health will come Wednesday, when New England is on the field for its first practice of the week. If Jones participates, it would be a sign he's progressing.