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Ravens’ plan for Malik Cunningham as a quarterback made signing an easy decision

The undrafted rookie was incentivized after he heard the team’s future plans for him at his preferred position.

NFL: Preseason-Houston Texans at New England Patriots Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The decision to sign to the Baltimore Ravens’ active roster over sticking with the New England Patriots’ practice squad earlier this week was an easy one for undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham to make.

It wasn’t because the Ravens have the best record in the AFC at 10-3 and are the favorite to secure the No. 1 seed, while his old team is 3-10 and already eliminated from playoff contention. After the Ravens told him that their plan was to develop him as a quarterback and not a wide receiver hybrid, which the Patriots were using him as, he was sold right then and there.

“When he told me that, I was all ears,” Cunningham said via the team website. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m sliding. I ain’t going to stay.’”

Cunningham succeeded Ravens’ franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson at the University of Louisville and was also an electrifying dual-threat for the Cardinals as a four-year starter from 2019-2022. The two of them were teammates for Jackson’s final year in college in 2017 when he was just a redshirt freshman. Cunningham is happy to be reunited with his mentor and role model at the professional level.

“I learned a lot from him, how to be a quarterback on and off the field, take advantage of what defenses give you,” Cunningham said. “The relationship we’ve built over the last seven, eight years it’s been crazy. I’m just happy to have him in my corner and now he’s my quarterback. It’s crazy.”

Jackson was impressed by him as a redshirt freshman seven years ago and followed his career after he moved on. He’s excited not only that they’re teammates again but because he gets a front-row seat and will play a part in his development at the highest level.

“He’s got all types of potential,” Jackson said. “He’s explosive, can throw the ball anywhere on the field, make guys miss. He can do it all.”

Cunningham produced prolific numbers in college, showing all the dynamic playmaking ability that teams look for at the quarterback position and ran a 4.53 at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. Despite this, he was asked to workout as a wide receiver and still wound up going undrafted.

It was widely assumed that Jackson would prove to be a trailblazer for quarterbacks of their ilk, as he became a unanimous league MVP after falling to the bottom of the first round in the 2018 draft. However, Cunningham was still viewed more as an athlete than a quarterback prospect coming out of college.

Cunningham stood out in preseason for the Patriots. However, despite the team’s inconsistent and inept play at quarterback, he was never given a shot under center and only appeared in one game — where he was sacked for a five-yard loss. After he signed with the Ravens, several of his former teammates expressed their happiness for him and his new opportunity on several social media posts.

“A lot of those guys knew I was capable of going out there and making plays and helping the team compete,” Cunningham said. “You just have to take it with a grain of salt with the coaching and what the coaches want for the best of the team, which was to put somebody else in. But I knew and my teammates knew I should have had a chance to be out there.”

The Ravens typically only carry four quarterbacks during training camp and the preseason when rosters are much bigger. The most they’ve ever carried into the regular season was three from 2018-2019 during Jackson’s first two years in the league. Cunningham joined a room that already includes 2022 Pro Bowler Tyler Huntley and veteran journeyman Josh Johnson, who are both slated to be unrestricted free agents after this season.

“From a quarterback perspective, it’s a future type of a move,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be really interesting to see how he develops. He’s a quarterback; there’s no doubt about that. He’s here to develop as a quarterback. This is an opportunity. I think when you’re a general manager, you’ve got to look for all those opportunities, and Eric [DeCosta], he’s the best, so he does that.”

When asked what stands out most about Cunningham in his eyes, Jackson not only spoke glowingly but paid him the ultimate complement by calling him “unique” saying that “he’s one of one.”

“Only he can do what he [does] when he’s on the field.” Jackson said. “When he gets his chance to show the world, I believe people are going to see it – just not from college [but since] he entered the league – because we saw in preseason, when he was with the Patriots, little glimpses of it. But I just think the world of him. The sky is the limit for him.”

While the Ravens still primarily view Cunningham as a quarterback, Harbaugh said they still intend to play him at wide receiver and on special teams this year. He is occupying the roster spot that was created when All-Pro returner Devin Duvernay was placed on injured reserve.

As long as Cunningham remains on the 53-man roster for the remainder of the regular season, he will become an exclusive-rights free agent and will be eligible to re-sign exclusively with the Ravens this offseason. Had he remained on the practice squad, he would have become a free agent at the end of the year.