October 9, 2011; Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (96) during warm-ups before the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

Jermaine Cunningham Deserves Roster Spot

ESPN Boston runs a “Bubble Watch” series, where they take a look at players who might not make the New England Patriots roster, such as Jermaine Cunningham, and explain the case for and against why a player should make the 53-man roster. They also give a percentage on how likely it is for the player in question to make the roster.

Today, Mike Rodak wrote the “Bubble Watch” article on New England Patriots outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, who is coming off of a disappointing year and is a former second round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft. He recorded just one tackle this past season before being put on the injured reserve, and Rodak gave Cunningham just a 35% chance of making the roster.

Jermaine Cunningham may have been poor last season, but he deserved a roster spot based on what he did in his rookie year when he had sufficient snaps. Cunningham was one of the best outside linebackers in the 2010 draft class, with he and Koa Misi being in that argument. He did not finish mini camp due to an injury, but head coach Bill Belichick really liked what he saw from Cunningham during the offseason.

I liked what I saw from the DE/LB, but it was more of a potential based thing. He wasn’t as good as Misi in his rookie year, and, to be blunt, it was a weak OLB class overall. But still, Jermaine Cunningham did an excellent job getting pressure and pressured the quarterback just over 10% of every pass rush, which is a very high rate.

The 24-year-old former Florida Gators star is heading into his crucial third year in th league, and this is when players make that jump; it’s true. Just look at guys like Josh Freeman and countless other examples in the league. Jermaine Cunningham has shown a great amount of potential as a potential two-way OLB with his promising pass rushing ability and solid run defense. He solidifies the Patriots in the 3-4 by controlling the gaps.

It is true that Cunningham is an inconsistent pass rusher, but the Patriots haven’t exactly given him enough chances to prove himself and develop. Last season is a poor indicator of his ability, because he rarely played and didn’t have a chance to build on what he did as a rookie. One problem is that he played worse towards the end of the 2010 season, but Belichick and others have noticed an improvement in the offseason before he got injured.

At this point, Cunningham looks like a young hybrid DE/OLB who has talent and potential that can be untapped if given the right amount of playing time next season. The question shouldn’t be whether or not he makes the roster, it should be whether or not he starts. While that isn’t likely, Jermaine Cunningham deserves a significant role as a backup on a defense that likes to switch it’s packages in major and minor ways; there is no true base package. That’s not a bad thing for Cunningham, because he is a versatile defensive player, which can be seen in his pass rushing and run stopping ability as well as his ability to play at end in a 4-3 and OLB in a 3-4.

He’s had to learn one of the most complex defenses in the NFL on the fly, and it changed again last season after his rookie year. It was in a lockout shortened year, no less.

The bottom line is that Jermaine Cunningham has the upside to be a successful starting 3-4 OLB (or 4-3 DE) in the NFL, and keeping him is the obvious decision. It’s time to see what he can do in his third year, and the Patriots need to keep him to find out if Cunningham can make the jump. It would be a shame to drop a second-rounder who had one bad season after a quality rookie year, because you don’t want to release a solid player after bringing him on board and missing out.

You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.

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Tags: Bill Belichick ESPN Boston Florida Gators Jermaine Cunningham Koa Misi Mike Rodak New England Patriots

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