- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When second-year defensive end/linebacker Jermaine Cunningham showed up on Friday's injury report as doubtful (hamstring), it led to two thoughts:
1. What has happened to Cunningham this season?
2. Is defensive end/linebacker Markell Carter ready for a promotion from the practice squad to take his spot?
When it comes to Cunningham, he hasn't been able to carry over the momentum from his rookie season when he was mostly a first- and second-down player at outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense (playing 51 percent of the snaps). I think part of that has been related to a change to a 4-3, which Bill Belichick adopted because of the lockout/shortened offseason, while the other part is tied to injuries and his performance.
Cunningham didn't show explosiveness in training camp at right defensive end in the 4-3 and has been buried behind impressive veteran Andre Carter on the depth chart. He's played just 48 defensive snaps this season, his primary contributions coming on the punt return unit.
That has to be a big disappointment to the coaching staff to see a 2010 second-round draft choice regress like that. At the same time, perhaps they view the scheme change as a significant factor and have plans for Cunningham in a 3-4 look in 2012.
As for Carter, he is clearly on the rise.
The sixth-round draft choice from Central Arkansas has been recognized in recent weeks by the coaching staff for his exemplary work in practice. He's bulked up from 252 to 268 pounds this year, his commitment in the weight room paying off as he makes the big transisition from the FCS-level to the NFL.
Another NFL team recently expressed interest in signing Carter, but Carter decided to remain in New England.
From my experience, that usually means that Carter can expect a significant pay raise and/or a promotion to the 53-man roster. With Cunningham showing up on the injury report Friday, it wouldn't be a surprise if Carter is promoted as soon as Saturday, with Cunningham landing on injured reserve.