FOXBORO, Mass. — When Jermaine Cunningham was suspended for violating the NFL’s PED policy, the question of who would replace him up front immediately came square into view.
The four likely replacements along the defensive line were Trevor Scott, Brandon Deaderick, Ron Brace and rookie Justin Francis. Obviously, if Chandler Jones can return to full health and work his way back onto the field none of this would be much of a concern. In the meantime, Scott seems to be the most likely proxy for Cunningham given his experience and success as a pass rusher with the Raiders. But don’t count Francis out of that mix just yet.
After signing on with the Patriots as an undrafted rookie out of Rutgers in April, Francis has made the most of every opportunity he’s been afforded. He went inactive for the Patriots’ first five games of the season, but has begun carving out a role for himself on defense as the season’s gone on.
Francis has been a solid special teams player all season, even getting awfully close to blocking a few punts. And he’s continued to build a role along the defensive line as a good depth option and situational pass rusher. His snap count has never been very high, as he’s slowly integrated into the defensive scheme, but he’s used every practice rep to make sure he’s ready if and when his number is called.
“There’s a very large value. You take your snaps as much as you can and really try to take advantage of every snap that you get,” Francis said of his preparation.
Francis has been used most in pass rushing situations, which he bluntly said acknowledged his preferred position anyway. As for his use out on the field, though, Francis is willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. Even if that means playing quarterback — although that’s not very likely.
“Wherever coach wants me to play, I’m gonna play,” Francis said of his commitment to the team. “If it’s quarterback, it’s quarterback. If it’s cornerback, it’s cornerback,” Francis added before cracking a big smile and pausing for a few laughs, “But I don’t think I’m going to be playing any of those positions.”
Francis may be joking around now, but you can be sure that on Sunday he’ll be ready and willing to contribute in anyway Bill Belichick asks. And that will likely entail filling some of Cunningham’s responsibilities. A task, Francis is more than prepared to take on.
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