Everyone is intrigued by how rookies adjust to the NFL during the offseason. Former Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham may be making the most substantial adjustment of any rookie as he transitions from quarterback to wide receiver for the Patriots. Naturally, he compares himself to another Patriot that thrived after the transition, Julian Edelman.
Yet, it never had to be this way. One of the more bizarre moments of the NFL Combine was Malik Cunningham’s response when asked about being drafted to the USFL, which you can watch below.
Louisville QB Malik Cunningham said he’s not playing in the USFL (was drafted by the Birmingham Stallions) and that he’s here for the Combine and to play in the NFL pic.twitter.com/hlX12j0MtD
— Billy “Arm Wrestled Travis Bagent” Riccette (@Billy_Riccette) March 3, 2023
While it is not the most tactful excuse, I do not think it is enough to blackball a talent of his caliber from the USFL. One can argue that Malik Cunningham has a better chance at sticking in the NFL if he refines his quarterback skills in the USFL rather than try to play a position he has never played. As it stands, Malik Cunningham likely would not have to change positions if he played in the USFL.
Cunningham’s USFL situation is fascinating as the Birmingham Stallions drafted him and own his rights. However, saying the Stallions have a loaded quarterback room is an understatement as Alex McGough is the MVP frontrunner, J’Mar Smith will be back from injury after this season, and if that were not enough the Stallions have 2022 All-USFL quarterback Kyle Sloter. The Stallions have an opportunity to trade Cunningham to a team needing quarterback depth and strengthen other positions. Luckily, a few teams make plenty of sense as trade partners.
The New Jersey Generals have had arguably the roughest year at the quarterback position of any team in the USFL. The Generals have cycled through three quarterbacks due to DeAndre Johnson’s injury. Johnson has improved throughout his two years in the USFL but his running ability increases his liability to injury.
The Generals turned to Kyle Lauletta, who is more of a pocket passer during Johnson’s injury. Lauletta was not bad, throwing for but did not impress the Generals as they released him after Johnson’s return.
Cunningham’s similarities in play style to Johnson could make him a competitor for the backup role with Dakota Prukop. Prukop is much more mobile than Lauletta but only saw extended playing time once during Johnson’s injury. Prukop completed 14 of his 25 passes for 128 yards, with a pair of touchdowns and an interception in a loss to Memphis. Prukop’s small sample size during Johnson’s injury implies the backup job would be open should the Generals trade for Cunningham.
The Pittsburgh Maulers’ fortunes changed once they replaced James Morgan with Troy Williams. Williams has been nothing short of electric for Pittsburgh as he has thrown for 1260 yards and five touchdowns while also leading the Maulers in rushing with 301 yards. Should Williams get hurt in the winner-take-all season finale against New Jersey or the playoffs, the Maulers’ offense would be as good as dead.
Williams’ backup is James Morgan, but the Maulers’ offense was anemic with Morgan at the helm. Morgan completed less than half his passes and threw three interceptions without a single touchdown in 48 passes. In the three games that Morgan got significant playing time, the Maulers’ offense scored only 12 points.
Malik Cunningham makes more sense as a backup as the Maulers lean heavily on the quarterback running game and would not have to change their approach substantially as they have with Morgan at the helm. Additionally, the Maulers have the pieces for a productive quarterback run package with Cunningham. Pittsburgh is one of the few USFL teams to roster a fullback in Mason Stokke.
What if I told you a team that has won just one of its last seven games somehow controls its destiny in the playoffs? That is the position of the Michigan Panthers as the league figured out Josh Love seemingly overnight.
Josh Love had a Jeremy Lin-like run in the first two games, setting the USFL record for completion percentage in a game after he completed 18 of his 20 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the opening game against Houston and throwing for 174 yards and a touchdown in a win over the defending North Division champions, the Philadelphia Stars.
Seemingly overnight, things turned for Love as the Generals held him to 101 passing yards on 31 passes in a 28-13 loss beginning the Panthers’ slide. On the biggest regular season stage in the USFL, the post-Kentucky Derby NBC primetime game, Love managed only 58 yards with ten completions on 15 passes before getting benched for Carson Strong. The Panthers benched Love again the following week before sticking with him the rest of the year.
Despite appearing in relief for Josh Love, Carson Strong did not particularly impress the Panthers, completing 31 of his 49 passes for 266 yards. Long story short, the quarterback position is a long-term question mark for Michigan. It would not hurt the Panthers to trade for Cunningham to provide new potential at the position.
Too often, we see athletically gifted quarterbacks never get the chance to play quarterback and instead play receiver or running back. Cunningham has a golden opportunity to develop as a quarterback and could help a USFL team immensely.
What do you think of Malik Cunningham coming to the USFL, if his NFL plans don’t pan out? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!