COMMENTARY| NFL players only receive so many opportunities to prove themselves during their careers. Inconsistent New England Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham has spent the past several seasons trying to establish himself but may now be facing a last chance to avoid being considered a bust.
About to enter his fourth professional season, Cunningham has never developed any true consistency with the Patriots. As training camp nears, he has no guarantees of a roster spot and will need to earn his place on the team by showing he can be a productive player.
Cunningham was a second-round pick (53rd overall selection) in 2010 out of the University of Florida. In addition to the defensive line, he also played some linebacker in college and totaled 18.5 sacks and 33 tackles for losses during his career as a Gator, which included playing on two National Championship teams.
At 255 pounds, he is a bit undersized when it comes to traditional defensive ends. However, his experience at being a hybrid is coveted by Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has previously coaxed great production out of similarly-sized players like Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich, who were able to switch back and forth as needed.
Playing primarily at linebacker, Cunningham appeared in 15 games as a rookie, logging 35 tackles and a sack.
He was active for just nine games in 2011 but rarely played. He was often a healthy scratch and recorded only one tackle before being placed on injured reserve towards the end of the season.
Last year, Cunningham played exclusively on the defensive line, and looked to be building some momentum. He was recognized with nine other players during training camp for their outstanding offseason work. Unfortunately, the accolades didn't translate into on-field results, as he finished with underwhelming numbers of 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Towards the end of the season, he also tested positive for performance enhancing substances and was suspended for four games; returning in time for the final game of the year and the playoffs. Ironically, he had been playing the best ball of his career prior to his punishment, including tying a career-high with six tackles in his last game before starting his suspension.
The 25-year-old Cunningham is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Barring a major boost in production, 2013 is likely to be his final season with the Patriots, assuming he even makes the team out of training camp.
Having experience playing linebacker, defensive end and even a little defensive tackle, Cunningham's versatility should give him a bit of a leg up. Instead, he has been unable to master any of the positions and is on the verge of becoming an official draft bust.
WEEI's Christopher Price wrote that Cunningham is very much on the roster bubble for a second straight year. With the Patriots having brought in more bodies up front, like veteran Tommy Kelly, and youngsters Jamie Collins, Jake Bequette, Michael Buchanan, Jason Vega and Armond Armstead, there could be more competition than ever to earn playing time.
The Patriots have lacked a true pass rushing presence up the middle for a while. Cunningham could have seized that role over the past few years but always came up short and is now just another player. Although he may have another chance at becoming part of the defensive rotation, he should fully expect it to be his last.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report. He also produces his own blog, appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts, and written on the topics of sports and history for a number of print publications and websites.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew
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