Cunningham's absence had pluses

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After serving a four-game suspension, defensive end Jermaine Cunningham has returned to practice this week for the Patriots and is likely to be activated to the roster before the regular-season finale on Sunday.

Prior to Cunningham's suspension, he was being used in a top reserve role at defensive end and also as a sub-defense rusher from the interior part of the defensive line. Here's an overview of how the Patriots have rotated their top four defensive ends in Cunningham's absence:

Rob Ninkovich: 252 of 280 snaps (90 percent)
Chandler Jones: 123 of 217 snaps (57 percent; Jones missed Week 13 due to an ankle injury)
Trevor Scott: 119 of 280 snaps (43 percent)
Justin Francis: 103 of 280 snaps (37 percent)

On Wednesday, head coach Bill Belichick was asked if it was a silver lining of the suspension that both Francis and Scott were able to get more reps than they had previously played this season.

"It’s certainly a positive for some of the players who get those opportunities," he said. "If they can take advantage of them and use that opportunity to enhance their role or show through their performance that they’re ready to handle more responsibility, it’s a good thing for them and ultimately it can be a good thing for the team to be able to actually see those guys do it, see those guys improve, watch them get more reps in practice and in the games and get more confidence in them and know that their execution level is higher from that. I’d say that’s accurate."