Phil Perry

Patriots-Texans stock watch: All aboard the Cunningham hype train

Malik Cunningham flashed some tantalizing potential in the Patriots' preseason opener.

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FOXBORO -- It's not often you'll hear Bill Belichick acknowledge that the team is unusually banged up in one area or another on his roster. Do your job. Next man up. If backups are in there, they aren't backups anymore. That's usually the at-the-podium approach.

But on Thursday night, the offensive line play was noticeably off to the point where even Belichick was willing to give it a nod in his postgame presser. 

"Yeah, well, I mean, we're dealing with some injuries on the offensive line," Belichick said when asked if it was hard to evaluate quarterback Bailey Zappe's performance because of the amount of pressure he faced. 

"But the guys that were in there got some experience. But, yeah, it's tough for the backs. It's tough for the quarterback. Yeah, we didn't have a lot of space on the offense for the most part tonight."

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The Patriots averaged a measly 3.6 yards per pass and 3.1 yards per run. At halftime, they had managed only 2.6 yards per play. They had six yards on seven rushing attempts.

Not ideal. 

They have to hope that soon they'll have Trent Brown out there with David Andrews. They have to hope that Riley Reiff will be a representative right tackle. They have to hope Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu get healthy. Because what they had on the field Thursday wasn't pretty. And it made it hard to get a good idea for what they truly have talent-wise at other positions.

Still, that didn't keep us from keeping tabs on everyone else. Here's our Stock Watch following the first preseason game of the summer for Belichick's club.

Stock Up

Malik Cunningham, QB/WR

The undrafted rookie surpassed even our expectations with his one dynamite series in the fourth quarter against the Texans.

Designed runs? Check. A scramble-drill throw for a few that would've been a sack for most others? Check. A run around the edge that finished with a vicious facemask ... and one play later an accurate throw to Pierre Strong? Check. A dime of a pass that should've been a touchdown to Tre Nixon? Check. A ridiculous juke of linebacker Jake Hansen that led to a touchdown run? Check.

All aboard the Cunningham hype train. Tickets are going fast.

Tyquan Thornton, WR

It was just one catch, but it was a 27-yarder in traffic -- a "hole shot" -- that required a leaping finger-tip grab. That qualifies as a positive-momentum play for a guy who needed one after a slow start to camp.

Demario "Pop" Douglas, WR

I had him down for just two offensive snaps. No targets. One fair catch on a punt. And that was it. So why is his stock up? Sure seems like the Patriots coaching staff already has a good idea of what it has in the sixth-round rookie out of Liberty.

Long way from Week 1, but I'd take Thursday night's inaction as a good sign for his chances of making the roster.

Keion White, DE

Shot out of a cannon. That's how he looked early in this one. Two pressures. One quarterback hit. A tackle on third down. A hit in the backfield that looked like a tackle for a loss ... but turned into a fumble and a Patriots recovery.

He did what he wanted against backups. His physical skill set is for real. An athlete at 290 pounds. Loads of potential there.

Jalen Mills, S

Nice showing from the veteran, who got plenty of run at safety. A pick and a tackle for a loss when run-blitzing off the edge? He'll take that. Looks plenty comfortable at his new spot.

Anfernee Jennings, OLB

The Patriots' depth on the edge is impressive right now. Start with Matthew Judon, Deatrich Wise and Josh Uche. Then there's White, who has had a strong camp and popped in the preseason opener. Then there's Jennings, who has been impressive in his own right at times during practices.

That continued against the Texans. He had back to back pressures during Houston's second drive and later drew a hold. Primarily an early-down edge-setter last season, the 2020 third-rounder showed some juice as a pass-rusher in exhibition No. 1.

Stock Down

Conor McDermott, OT

The entirety of the Patriots offensive line had issues on Thursday, but McDermott had a false start penalty and was on the scene for a pressure by defensive tackle Kurt Hinish. 

Chasen Hines, OG

Hines had put together a few good practices in full pads lately, but he appeared to be the culprit on a couple of negative runs. There was a loss of two for Kevin Harris in the second quarter and another stuffed run for Harris in the third.

There looks like an opening to be the top interior backup, so Hines will look to make a run at that gig when the team heads out to Green Bay.

James Ferentz, C

Two penalties on one fourth-quarter drive for the veteran. Not what you're looking for. There was a hold on a Cunningham scramble. Those can be tough because if you're blocking and expecting the quarterback to be in a spot with a good (legal) grip on someone's chest plate ... and then your defender moves ... then that grip can suddenly become illegal.

Ferentz also had a false start later when there appeared to be some confusion between him and Jake Andrews on the snap count. 

Kevin Harris, RB

The questions surrounding the running back position weren't answered Thursday. Hard to do, no question, when the offensive line struggles the way it did. But there was one Harris run in particular that seemed to indicate the Patriots need more help at running back to spell Rhamondre Stevenson.

On fourth down, early in the third quarter, Bill Belichick went for it. They needed a yard. Harris lost one. It looked like there was a bit of space for Harris to exploit. But even if there wasn't, you'd like to see a good-sized back like Harris hit the line with reckless abandon. Didn't happen there. Didn't happen during a goal-line period earlier in camp.

He may not have the explosiveness to the hole that the Patriots need to be their No. 2.

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