Cunningham's skill could fill Pats' need

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Who is Jermaine Cunningham, and is he the answer to the New England Patriots' pass-rush woes?

That is arguably the most important question surrounding the team's 12-member draft class.

Most years, it is the first-round draft choice who has the brightest spotlight shining on him, but that probably won't be the case this year in New England. Nothing against likable cornerback Devin McCourty, who is solid and the prototypical Patriot. It's just that regardless how well McCourty plays, he won't be able to solve one of the team's biggest problems, an issue that made an inexperienced quarterback such as Miami's Chad Henne look like an All-Pro last season.

Cunningham can, and that's why he's the joker in this year's Patriots deck.

Some might have been surprised when the Patriots made Cunningham their lone pass-rush selection in the draft (second round, 53rd overall), figuring that if the team looked to Florida for pass-rush help, it would have taken the Gators' other end, Carlos Dunlap.

One of the main reasons the Patriots went with Cunningham is that they viewed him as a more natural fit to make the challenging transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Dunlap, they felt, was more of a pure 4-3 end.

Bill Belichick made the point last week that Cunningham, in terms of hype, was a bit overshadowed by Dunlap. But Cunningham's production speaks for itself. He has been harassing quarterbacks since his days at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., when he totaled 25 sacks in his senior season and had 20 as a junior.

Cunningham finished his Florida career with 19.5 quarterback takedowns, growing from a 229-pound sophomore to a 266-pound NFL prospect who started 38 of 45 games while totaling 152 tackles (34 for a loss), stepping in as rushers Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey departed for the NFL.

"He had an outstanding career down there," Belichick said. "He's a tough guy, a hard-working guy, very well respected on that football team in that program."

The 6-foot-3 Cunningham earned respect from Patriots talent evaluators last season by playing through a shoulder injury in the Southeastern Conference championship and against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. They viewed that as an example of the 22-year-old Cunningham, who considers himself a silent leader, putting the team first.

Belichick also pointed out that Cunningham has been productive against top-notch competition, listing NFL offensive linemen with whom he battled in college, a group including Alabama's Andre Smith (Bengals) and Mississippi's Michael Oher (Ravens) and John Jerry (Dolphins).

Another opponent, Vanderbilt offensive tackle Thomas Welch, is now Cunningham's teammate with the Patriots.

"He's a tremendous athlete that gets after it every play," Welch said of Cunningham during the 2009 season. "He's a smart player, a guy that doesn't make mistakes when you face him. He's their top guy."

How quickly Cunningham can become a top guy for the Patriots will be a significant factor in evaluating the success of this year's draft class. Each year, grades are placed on prospects, and this year's crop had an unusually high number of players the team felt could become starters within two years.

Cunningham is obviously one of them, and given that his expertise comes in an area in which the team struggled in 2009, the sooner he can emerge, the better. The Patriots' decision-making will come under scrutiny if he doesn't.

Some might ask: If not Cunningham, then who?

One possibility was making an aggressive trade up for Michigan defensive end/outside linebacker Brandon Graham (13th, Philadelphia Eagles). Going that route would have likely meant sacrificing first-round, second-round and mid-round picks, which is a hefty price to pay.

In essence, the question is: Would you rather have McCourty, tight end Rob Gronkowski and a 2011 second-round draft choice, or Graham?

Other rushers who were in the Patriots' range included Texas Christian's Jerry Hughes (31st, Indianapolis Colts), Utah's Koa Misi (40th, Miami Dolphins), Texas's Sergio Kindle (43rd, Baltimore Ravens) and Virginia Tech's Jason Worilds (52nd, Pittsburgh Steelers).

Cunningham is scheduled to arrive in town Thursday with the rest of the Patriots' newcomers, and they'll step on the field Friday as part of the team's first rookie minicamp. While McCourty, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and the new tight end duo of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez figure to create plenty of buzz, one could easily make the case that Cunningham is the most important rookie in this year's class.

The Patriots' pass rush needs a boost. All eyes will be on Cunningham to see if he can provide it.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.