For all the concern about the Patriots not landing a pass rusher in the 2011 draft, former University of Florida coach Urban Meyer says that hope could arrive this season in the form of second-year linebacker Jermaine Cunningham.
Cunningham, who was taken by New England in the second round of the 2010 draft out of Florida, just finished his rookie year with the Patriots when he played in 15 games, starting 11. The 6-foot-3, 266-pounder finished the season with 34 tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles. (According to the analytical web site Pro Football Focus, Cunningham was on the field for 577 of New England’s 1,108 defensive plays in 2010.)
Meyer always believed Cunningham was the type of player who could develop into a legitimate pass rusher.
“Obviously, I did,” Meyer said, “but Bill Belichick really did.”
According to Meyer, landing Cunningham represented the culmination of a scouting odyssey for the Patriots coach, who had his eye on Cunningham for several seasons. Meyer says Belichick’s interest in the linebacker was piqued when Cunningham was a sophomore — the New England coach made several trips to Florida to spend time with Meyer, and with a collection of great defenders on the Florida roster, the player that always seemed to interest Belichick the most was Cunningham.
“That started his sophomore year,” Meyer said of Belichick’s interest in Cunningham. “Coach Belichick would always come down and watch film and I’d sometimes sit in there and he would keep asking about [Jermaine]: ‘Who’s this guy? Who’s this guy? Who’s this guy?’ And you had Derrick Harvey, you had Jarvis Moss, Carlos Dunlap, and then Jermaine was kind of the next guy, but he would always say ‘Who is that guy? I love that guy.’
“Bill Belichick’s the one who saw a lot in him.”
New England has struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks the last two seasons, but Meyer believes the emergence of Cunningham could go a long way toward solving those problems for the Patriots.
“He’s got an incredible work ethic — he’s probably as hard a working guy as we’ve had,” Meyer said of Cunningham. “He was excellent with his hands. When we recruited him, he was 195 pounds, and now he’s 260. He’s always been real fast over the course of his career. He’s got a lot of speed.”
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