The Patriots could have significant changes at the quarterback position for Sunday's game vs. the Chargers at Gillette Stadium, with kick-off shortly after 1 p.m. ET in Foxborough.
With reports indicating that second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe will start for the Patriots on Sunday, New England also elevated QB/WR Malik Cunningham from the practice squad on Saturday. After signing to the 53-man roster to make his NFL debut in Week 6, this is Cunningham's first standard elevation out of three this season.
It's worth noting that the Patriots cannot use the emergency quarterback rule by only elevating Cunningham to the 53-man roster from the practice squad. All three quarterbacks must be on the 53-man roster to designate an emergency quarterback. Since the Patriots only have two quarterbacks on the active roster, Bailey Zappe and Mac Jones, they cannot use Jones as the emergency quarterback, ruling out the following quarterback depth chart on Sunday: Zappe (QB1), Cunningham (QB2), Jones (QB3/emergency QB).
In other words, all three quarterbacks need to be on the game-day active roster to be eligible to play in the game. The question is, will the Patriots dress Cunningham as Zappe's only backup or have three quarterbacks active for the game? My guess is they'll dress all three.
Along with reports about Zappe's getting the start, there are signs that the Patriots have prepped a package of plays for Cunningham. The undrafted rookie's first audition didn't go particularly well for the former Louisville quarterback. Cunningham played six snaps in the loss to the Raiders, with zero targets in four snaps at receiver and -4 yards in two snaps at QB.
At a time when the Patriots were hoping for an added wrinkle to an already struggling offense, Cunningham produced a one-yard handoff to Rhamondre Stevenson and was sacked for a five-yard loss on two option plays at quarterback in Vegas. Cunningham spent most of the spring and summer trying to make the team as a converted wide receiver, so it wasn't a surprise that he looked unprepared to take snaps at quarterback.
In practice this week, Cunningham has been working primarily with the quarterbacks. Although the first crack at integrating Cunningham was a flop, his mobility and arm talent were on display on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive in the preseason opener against the Texans. Granted, it was late in the first preseason game against backups. But there was a plan at the time to install a package of plays for Cunningham in case the team needed to go in that direction.
Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien called RPO and read-option designs for Cunningham, a dynamic ball carrier. For example, on Cunningham's nine-yard touchdown run against the Texans, the Pats used the same empty call four times with Cunningham at QB. With a stick concept and slant/go-flat as the pass routes, Cunningham can give an initial scan of the coverage on a quick-game concept. Due to his mobility, he always has the option to take off running, which he did here, juking out the middle linebacker on his way to the end zone.
With tons of hype surrounding his NFL debut, Cunningham's performance in Las Vegas was a dud. For those reasons, we'd urge Patriots fans to manage their expectations about round two for the Pats rookie. Still, it's enticing to see if Cunningham can bring a different flavor to the offense as a dual-threat quarterback, even if it's just something fun to watch for fans clamoring for an entertaining product from a 2-9 football team.
Heavy rain is in the forecast for Sunday's game against a Chargers team used to sunny Southern California, which majors in two-high safety schemes and is 26th in DVOA against the run. The likelihood that the Patriots will try to lean on an improving rushing attack that ranks second in expected points added since Week 6, maybe with Cunningham as the point man on read-option plays, is high, given the circumstances.
With rookie wide receivers Demario Douglas (concussion) and Kayshon Boutte (shoulder/illness) ruled out for Sunday, Cunningham could also serve as an extra wide receiver behind projected regulars DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Tyquan Thornton. The Pats view TE Mike Gesicki as a pseudo-wide receiver, so Cunningham would essentially be the fifth wideout on the depth chart. Still, he has game-day value as a wide receiver in an emergency.
The Patriots roster is set to host the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.