New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Malik Cunningham is trying to convert from Louisville quarterback to Patriots receiver (Photo by Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Last year, football fans had to watch the San Francisco 49ers flounder in the NFC Championship as injuries to multiple quarterbacks left them running a permanent Wildcat offense. This year, the NFL has made a change aimed at preventing such an occurrence in the future.

At the league meetings this week, NFL owners approved a change that will allow teams to dress a third quarterback for games without using up an active roster spot. The rule, which will likely be known as the Brock Purdy Rule, resembles a rule the league had in place from 1991 to 2010.

  • How the rule works is when teams turn in their inactive lists, they can also designate one player as an emergency third quarterback. That quarterback has to be on the 53-man roster, and can’t be a practice squad elevation. That player will dress for the game, but doesn’t count against the 48-man limit for the gameday roster and cannot play unless the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart “are injured or disqualified and unable to participate in the game.” If an injured quarterback is then cleared to play, he can return to the game but the third quarterback once again becomes ineligible.

    This wouldn’t preclude a team from having a three quarterback rotation or having two true quarterbacks active while playing a gadget quarterback as well (ex. Taysom Hill). A team could chose to simply have three quarterbacks active, and not declare any of them as an “emergency third quarterback.” In that case though, the team would not be given the ‘extra’ roster spot.

    It’s not like this rule truly gives teams an extra available player for an entire game. But, there are ways it could be maneuvered that might apply to the Patriots.

  • Coming into the season, the Patriots have Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe at the top of their depth chart. Over the offseason, they added veteran Trace McSorley and UDFA Malik Cunningham to the roster. When the news about the extra QB rule broke, many wondered if it could give the Patriots the flexibility to use Cunningham – a dynamic ball-carrier who rushed for 3,179 yards and 50 touchdowns in five years at Louisville – as a package player in certain situations.

    The short answer is – no. If Cunningham is truly going to be the Patriots’ third quarterback, he wouldn’t be eligible to play unless both Jones and Zappe leave the game.

    However, the Patriots could get creative and take a risk if they want to be able to get Cunningham on the field. Instead of designating him as the emergency, they could use that designation on Zappe. That would allow Cunningham to check in and out of the game as they want as the ‘No. 2 quarterback.’ Meanwhile, if Jones were to get hurt Zappe could still serve as the week-to-week backup. They’d just have to finish any game Jones got hurt in with Cunningham at QB (unless he got hurt too, and then Zappe could play).

    Of course for all of that to happen Cunningham will need to make the 53-man roster. That’s not unrealistic – the Patriots have carried three quarterbacks to start the season in two of the last three years. If Cunningham proves through the spring and summer he can be a difference-maker in some way, and the Patriots can essentially have an extra roster spot on gamedays by keeping him on the roster, there’s not much of a reason for them to keep him off the 53. And if he comes into camp and any formations drawn up for him aren’t working, then this is all a moot point anyway and the juggling of roster mechanics becomes irrelevant.

  • Again, for any of this to happen, Cunningham has to earn a spot on the roster. The Patriots generally keep at least one UDFA on the initial roster – they’ve done so in each of the last 19 seasons – and Cunningham is one of four undrafted rookies expected to be with the team for training camp.

    Cunningham’s push for a roster spot will begin this week, when the Patriots hold their first OTA practices. Check out our Patriots spring practice preview here.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].

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