OLB Jermaine Cunningham in focus

July, 31, 2010
7/31/10
6:00
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With the Patriots' thin depth at outside linebacker, I decided to lock in on rookie Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 53rd overall) during the team's full-pads training camp practice this afternoon.

As the roster is currently constituted, Cunningham (6-3, 260) figures to be in the mix for significant playing time at a position that is extremely difficult for a rookie to make an immediate impact.

The Patriots have been liberally rotating their top four outside linebackers through the first five practices, and today, Cunningham worked quite a bit opposite Tully Banta-Cain with many of last year's starters. Here were a few things I saw:

1. Cunningham trying to speed rush around left tackle Matt Light and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and, despite showing quickness at the snap, getting pushed out of the play.

2. Cunningham dropping off the line of scrimmage in coverage, following tight end Alge Crumpler, and looking fluid and quick in doing so. Another time, he dropped and found himself all the way on the sideline.

3. Cunningham lining up across from tight end Rob Gronkowski on the defensive left side, and Gronkowski getting his hands into him as Cunningham tried to hold his ground setting the edge, but was pushed back.

This is a big transition for Cunningham, who primarily played defensive end in the 4-3 alignment in college at Florida. One of the big challenges in making that transition is adjusting to dropping into coverage, and Cunningham's athleticism showed in this practice. He looks quicker and more smooth in that area than five-year veteran Pierre Woods.

Throughout training camp, I will continue to keep an eye on Cunningham when it comes to dropping into coverage and in the pass rush. Given the team's personnel at this time, the second-round draft choice looks like he will be given an opportunity to make an immediate impact.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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