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Patriots' depth at DE being tested

With starting left defensive end Rob Ninkovich limited at practice with a hip injury, top backup Jermaine Cunningham easing his way back into the mix after a late-season NFL suspension, and rookie reserve Justin Francis not present for the start of practice Tuesday (reason unknown), it shines a spotlight on the team's depth at the position.

Starters

LDE -- Rob Ninkovich (85 percent playing time)

RDE -- Chandler Jones (67.1 percent playing time)

Reserves

Jermaine Cunningham (40.1 percent playing time)

Trevor Scott (22.7 percent playing time)

Justin Francis (17.4 percent playing time)

Jake Bequette (2.6 percent playing time)

A few quick-hit thoughts:

1. This is arguably the deepest position on the roster. The Patriots have used an end as an interior rusher in sub packages throughout the year, which is the niche that Jermaine Cunningham has mostly filled. But we've also seen Justin Francis and Jake Bequette at times in that role.

2. Texans left tackle Duane Brown is one of the best players in the NFL at his position, and having Chandler Jones back 100 percent (which he wasn't Dec. 10) is a nice development for the Patriots. That's a big matchup in Sunday's game.

3. On the other side, there remains a question of how much Rob Ninkovich will be able to give the Patriots given his hip injury. If he can't go, the top fill-in would have been Cunningham earlier in the season, but the coaching staff might view things differently now after Cunningham missed Weeks 13-16 due to a suspension. Cunningham played 16 snaps in the season finale, compared to 34 for Francis and 23 for Trevor Scott.