Earlier this week, the Jets signed 25-year old free agent defensive end/linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. Cunningham provides the Jets with cover at the edge rusher position with Garrett McIntyre injured, Antwan Barnes already on injured reserve and Ricky Sapp now on the Houston Texans.
The 6-3, 255-pound Cunningham was a second round draft pick in 2010 and started 14 games over the past three seasons with the Patriots, recording 3.5 career sacks. He was injured in preseason and did not play, failing to make it through final cuts in August. He went on to spend four weeks on the 49ers roster in October, although he did not play for them either.
Who is Jermaine Cunningham?
Cunningham attended the University of Florida, where he had 19.5 career sacks and was a two-time second team all-SEC selection. Although he wasn’t able to work out at the scouting combine due to a shoulder injury, Cunningham did run at Florida’s pro day where he ran a 4.89 forty and showcased impressive athleticism with a 35-inch vertical and a 118-inch broad jump.
New England drafted Cunningham in the second round and he made an immediate impact in his first season, earning 11 starts. While he only recorded one sack, he did generate some pressure and played well against the run. In his second season, the Patriots switched to a 4-3 scheme and Cunningham struggled to get on the field. He was active for nine games and played just 48 snaps and recorded one tackle. However, in 2012, he was used primarily in pass rush situations and responded well. He had 2.5 sacks and five quarterback hits by week 11, but then was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and barely played once he returned.
In 2013, the Patriots were hoping he’d emerge, but he missed most of camp with injuries, only returning to practice a few days before the final preseason game. He did not play in that game and was released the next day with an injury settlement. The 49ers signed him as cover when Aldon Smith was out, but did not need to use him because Dan Skuta, Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier held down all the OLB reps.
Cunningham was cut by San Francisco at the end of October and the Jets picked him up this week. He’s the second of two recent second round picks for the Patriots to get signed here this season (after Ras-I Dowling was signed to the practice squad a few weeks ago).
Nine QB hits
One pass defensed
Five penalties (one on special teams)
No special teams tackles
Three missed tackles
Four targets in coverage for four catches and 25 yards
Here’s what I observed from watching footage of Cunningham, divided into categories:
Cunningham was used in a variety of roles all over the front seven. In his rookie year, he was used as an outside linebacker about 75% of the time. However, in 2012 he had apparently bulked up and played a lot more as an interior lineman, including plenty of reps at defensive tackle in pass rushing situations.
Cunningham’s production was pretty consistent and he was a constant handful with speed and power. In 2012, the majority of the pressure he generated came from lining up inside against a guard and blowing past them with pure speed. In 2010, most of the pressure he generated came with speed rushes off the edge. He has also drawn six holding penalties in his career including four last season.
Since most of the pressure he generated was basically just from his speed, he didn’t exhibit too much in the way of pass rush moves. However, he did show some more versatility in 2012, getting pressure with a speed rush off the edge on Austin Howard, exhibiting impressive power on a bullrush against Eric Wood and generating pressure off a stunt and with a nice spin move in the pocket against the Colts.
Standing his ground
Cunningham usually had the strength to hold up at the point of attack and tended to set the edge well. Where he did make mistakes, it was usually because he took himself out of the play by getting upfield on a rush or overpursuing to the inside and getting caught there on a bounce outside.
Since he is athletic and plays hard, Cunningham is obviously good in pursuit, although you don’t see too many examples of him chasing someone down because the Patriots are more of a gang tackling team. However, there was this play where he was blocked on the edge, but chased back and hit Peyton Hillis 10 yards downfield to force a fumble.
Cunningham’s tackling has been pretty reliable so far, although in his rookie year, he did have three missed tackles, all of which would have been sacks. Two were actually on Mark Sanchez.
It’s a bit of a concern that Cunningham struggled with the 4-3 system in 2011, but that’s likely more of a physicality thing rather than a scheme issue because he played DE on a 4-3 team in college. The Patriots run a versatile system with hybrid elements and learning the Jets’ scheme in detail probably won’t matter that much early on, assuming he’s going to be used as a situational pass rusher with a pretty one dimensional job description.
As noted, Cunningham took himself out of some running plays, but he seems to be a natural pass rusher. In terms of coverage, he only dropped into coverage five times last year, but he did 38 times in 2010 and although he gave up a catch on each of his four targets, only one of them went for more than 10 yards.
Cunningham’s speed and power are impressive, but he was definitely bigger and stronger in 2012 and didn’t seem to have lost any burst. He has a very explosive first step and comes off the edge with power.
Cunningham has played over 60 snaps four times in his career, so motor doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. Having said that, he only graded out positively in one of those four games.
The thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is that Cunningham fared reasonably well as an outside linebacker, but struggled when asked to play as a defensive end, returning the following year looking bigger and stronger, only to then get suspended for violating the substance abuse policy.
We therefore don’t really know what we’re getting, especially since we don’t have any 2013 preseason or regular season footage to interrogate. If Cunningham was strong and powerful enough to play as an interior lineman solely by virtue of performance enhancers, then perhaps he won’t be capable of playing that role any longer. (For what it’s worth, a source reported that Cunningham had taken Adderall, but then again that’s been the go-to excuse for many offenders and cannot be substantiated because the league don’t reveal toxicity results.)
If Cunningham has lost some strength and therefore can no longer hold up as a defensive end, that may not matter, because he could still be productive as a situational pass rusher off the edge in the Jets’ system. Troy Davis had to play nine snaps on Sunday with Garrett McIntyre out and Cunningham figures to be an upgrade with Davis mainly on the roster for his special teams prowess, so it would make sense for Cunningham to be active this week and get a handful of reps, even if the starters play the majority of the snaps again.
Whether or not he remains in the Jets’ long-term plans will depend on whether he can make any impact before McIntyre’s return, but he’s a pass rusher that showed promise in the footage I watched. I’ll leave you with these comments from former Jet, Giant and Patriot Steve DeOssie, who currently works for CSNNE in New England. These comments were from just three months ago:
“You’ve seen flashes of phenomenal pass-rushes from the young man. The fact is he has the ability, but again that’s gonna come from the three things that make you a great pass-rusher. First thing is an unbelievable desire to get to the quarterback; the second thing is understanding your craft; and the third thing is putting in the hours and the time that it takes to get better at that craft, studying and working out at what the great pass-rushers do to get better as pass-rushers. If he’s been willing to do that, he has all the athletic ability in the world to get that done.”
Exclusive stats from PFF were used in this article and we thank them for giving us access.