Third-year defensive end Jermaine Cunningham had been one of the more pleasant surprises of the Patriots' 2012 season, but now his bounce-back campaign is stained by a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances.
The league announced the suspension Monday (the actual substance was not revealed).
We'll focus solely on the on-field impact, as it marks the second Patriots player to be suspended this season for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances (rookie running back Brandon Bolden the other; cornerback Aqib Talib's suspension came when he was with the Buccaneers).
Cunningham played in all 11 games this season, logging 50.3 percent of the snaps while emerging as one of the club's top pass rushers. He had carved out a niche at "3 technique" (over the guard's outside shoulder), rushing from an interior position at times in the base defense, while playing a larger role as a designated pass rusher in sub packages.
When looking at the standard base defense, he has been the top backup at right defensive end behind Chandler Jones, who injured his ankle Nov. 11 and has been sidelined since.
So Cunningham's timing (not that there is ever good timing for a suspension) couldn't be much worse. This was his chance to re-establish himself as a starter-caliber player, which he was as a rookie (first-and-second-down 3-4 outside linebacker) before dipping considerably in his second year.
One aspect that somewhat softens the blow for the Patriots is that defensive end is one of the deeper positions on their roster.
Five-year veteran Trevor Scott, the former Oakland Raider, now gets bumped up the depth chart. He was running with the first unit at the start of training camp before Jones -- the team's top draft choice (21st overall) -- emerged quicker than many anticipated to bump Scott to a backup role (No. 4 on depth chart).
Scott would project as one of the team's starters if the injured Jones doesn't play in Sunday's road game against the Dolphins. The suspension also elevates rookie free agent Justin Francis (Rutgers) and third-round pick Jake Bequette (Arkansas) up the depth chart. Francis (56 snaps in 4 games) has been used in sub packages in recent weeks and shown some explosiveness as a pass rusher, while Bequette has only dressed for two games (17 snaps played, all at the end of the game).
Another possibility, if the coaching staff wants to get creative, is using linebacker Dont'a Hightower at end in sub packages, a role he played at times in college at Alabama.