New England Patriots 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, though the actual substance was not revealed.
He is the second Patriots player to be suspended for performance enhancers this season. Running back Brandon Bolden was also suspended four games earlier this month.
Cunningham, 24, can return to the active roster on Monday, Dec. 24, and won't be eligible to play until the regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 30. He has 23 tackles and 2½ sacks on the season. 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, Cunningham is the top backup at right defensive end behind Chandler Jones, who injured his ankle Nov. 11 and has been sidelined since.
The timing couldn't be much worse. This was Cunningham's chance to re-establish himself as a starter-caliber player, which he was as a rookie (3-4 outside linebacker) before dipping considerably in his second year.
"It's unfortunate," coach Bill Belichick said in his weekly appearance on sports radio WEEI. "It's a league discipline, so we don't really have any control over it or say in it."
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, a 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.
On Monday, Scott said he wasn't sure what the development will mean for his playing time.
"I don't really know what's going to happen as far as (the) depth chart or whatever, but I'll definitely be preparing to get a more active role this week," he said.
"We have a set-up so as soon as somebody goes down, it's the next man in. And you're expected to perform just as well as anybody else. That's why we work hard every week to stay mentally and physicall prepared," he added.
Scott would project as one of the team's starters if 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 has been used in sub packages in recent weeks and shown some explosiveness as a pass-rusher, while Bequette has dressed for only two games (17 snaps played, all at the end of games).
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.
There was little reaction Monday in the Patriots' clubhouse to Cunningham's suspension, as expected. A few players made reference to it, but declined to comment further.
"That's something I really don't want to comment on," said DE Rob Ninkovich. "It's unfortunate, but as a team, we'll keep going. ... Every year there is always going to be some issue that you have to deal with. That's just the way football goes. It's another thing we'll just deal with."
Added WR Matthew Slater: "All I can say to that is 'things happen' and I don't really have any knowledge of that situation. Things happen and you just have to respond as a team and just continue to focus on the Dolphins this week."
Cunningham is the third Patriots player to be suspended under the league's performance-enhancing substance rules in the past three years. Brandon Spikes was suspended in December 2010.
Bolden is eligible to return from his suspension next Monday.