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Analysis: Patriots Sign QB/WR Malik Cunningham to 53-Man Roster, Activate WR Tyquan Thornton in Series of Roster Moves

What will the versatile rookie's role be with the Patriots signing Cunningham to the active roster, and how can Thornton help the offense?

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The Patriots need a bounce-back win to get their season back on track in a pivotal matchup with the Raiders in Las Vegas on Sunday afternoon. 

On Saturday, the Patriots announced they are signing QB/WR Malik Cunningham to the 53-man roster, activating second-year WR Tyquan Thornton from injured reserve, and elevating WR Jalen Reagor and DL Jeremiah Pharms from the practice squad. To make room on the active roster, the Pats have placed LB Matthew Judon (elbow) and OT Tyrone Wheatley (knee) on injured reserve. 

Starting with the offense, the Patriots are shorthanded at receiver after ruling out wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Demario Douglas with concussions on Friday. The Pats also desperately need more speed and vertical separation from their outside receivers, which is where Thornton comes into play. The second-year wideout began the season on injured reserve for the second straight year due to a shoulder injury he suffered making a diving catch in joint practices with the Packers over the summer.

The two areas that have plagued the Patriots passing game the most are poor deep passing efficiency and struggles against man coverage. On 20 deep passes this season, quarterback Mac Jones ranks 31st out of 32 qualified passers in completion rate (4-of-20, 20%). Jones also sees the third-highest rate of cover one or man-to-man coverage, ranking dead-last in total expected points added against man coverage schemes this season (-37.2). With the strategy against the Pats offense being clear to opposing defenses, it's up to Jones and his pass-catchers to make teams pay for predictably playing them in man coverage, hopefully opening the middle of the field and more space for the Pats running backs. 

Although durability has been an issue for Thornton since being selected with the 50th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the second-year wideout could bring a field-stretching element to generate more downfield separation to beat the current formula, making life difficult on the offense. At this point, the idea of Thornton is more intriguing than his on-field production, especially given his issues staying healthy. Still, in camp, it appeared that offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien had a plan to help the slender receiver get free releases from the slot, with motion, or out of stack and bunch alignments. We'll have to see it to believe it with Thornton, but it's worth trying to see if he can create more downfield opportunities. 

Along with activating Thornton from injured reserve, the Patriots also elevated undrafted rookie QB/WR Malik Cunningham from the practice squad. Reports began trickling out that, following praise from head coach Bill Belichick and O'Brien this week, Cunningham had earned a practice-squad elevation and potentially a role in this week's game plan. However, that role remains a mystery, as Cunningham has primarily practiced at wide receiver throughout the spring, training camp, and in-season practices, but would seemingly be more valuable as a wildcat-style quarterback a la Taysom Hill to add a different wrinkle to the offense.

O'Brien indicated earlier this week that Cunningham has mostly worked as a scout-team quarterback in practice, mimicking other dual-threat QBs rather than in the Patriots offense, but maybe that has changed recently with the offense searching for explosive plays. As we mentioned, Belichick and O'Brien were highly complimentary of the rookie recently. 

"Malik's really worked hard and made a lot of improvement," Belichick said on Friday morning. "He never really played in the kicking game at Louisville, so he's started to show up there, never played receiver – didn't look very good either, in the spring, but he's really improved there. He can catch the ball, but just route running and finding zones and things like that. But, it's come pretty naturally to him. He plays a good amount of quarterback. He's competent there. He's a smart kid, works hard, and the opportunities he's had, he's shown a lot of improvement. It's a little too early for an induction ceremony here, but definitely a lot of improvement."

The Patriots also used a standard elevation on WR Jalen Reagor to make him eligible to play this week against the Raiders. This is Reagor's second of three standard elevations, but the former first-rounder didn't log a snap in Week 2. Reagor is known for his explosiveness and burst off the line of scrimmage, where he has been effective at times on vertical routes, crossers, and schemed touches. However, route detail and drops have plagued him in the NFL, so he has yet to live up to his draft status.

With the Patriots down two regulars at wide receiver, Cunningham, Thornton, and Reagor have a good chance of being activate for Sunday's game. That would leave the Patriots with Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker, Thornton, Cunningham, and Reagor available, while sixth-round rookie Kayshon Boutte is also in the mix. 

Lastly, on the offensive line, the Patriots didn't elevate any linemen from the practice squad despite ruling out G Cole Strange (knee) and OL Riley Reiff (knee), while OT Trent Brown (chest) and OL Mike Onwenu (ankle) are questionable. That seems to be good news for Brown and Onwenu's status for Sunday, with OT Calvin Anderson and rookie Sidy Sow likely in line to back up this week after being inactive in Week 5. Based on the current information, the Patriots starting offensive line will likely be LT Trent Brown, LG Atonio Mafi, C David Andrews, RG Mike Onwenu, and RT Vederian Lowe.

Moving over to the defense, the Patriots didn't activate DL Trey Flowers from the PUP list despite being listed as questionable with a foot injury. Flowers's practice window began on Oct. 5, meaning the team has until Oct. 26 to put him on the active roster, so there's still time for Flowers to return. Pharms is now up from the practice squad for the third-straight game as insurance for NT Davon Godchaux as Godchaux battles an ankle injury.

New England needs a win this week to prevent their season from spiraling out of control, and the sense around the team is that this could be a "kitchen sink" effort with all the healthy bodies contributing to get a victory in Las Vegas.

The Patriots roster is set for Sunday's matchup against the Raiders with kickoff at 4:05 p.m. ET at Allegiant Stadium.

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