Cunningham in better spot after hard work
FOXBOROUGH — When Patriots coach Bill Belichick praised the “great” offseason by end Jermaine Cunningham in June, it was tough to tell whether Belichick meant it or was giving him the Laurence Maroney kiss of death before a trade or release.
The answer is apparent now.
Cunningham was one of 10 Patriots to be honored in front of his teammates during a recent team meeting as top performers during the offseason program, a league source said.
The other Patriots who will receive a premium front-row parking spot in the players’ lot as a reward: linebackers Jerod Mayo, Bobby Carpenter, and Jeff Tarpinian, safety Patrick Chung, receiver Julian Edelman, end Trevor Scott, offensive tackle Nate Solder, running back Danny Woodhead, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
The players honored not only had stellar attendance, but also made the most progress in the weight room and on the practice field during organized team activities.
Free agents Carpenter and Scott and second-year players Tarpinian and Solder were honored after their first participation in the team’s offseason program.
This marks a big change for Cunningham. After a solid if unspectacular rookie season after being a second-round pick in 2010, Cunningham did not seem ready for the start of training camp after the lockout. That could have contributed to the groin injury he suffered during the preseason, which set Cunningham back even further.
Cunningham wound up playing just 48 defensive snaps in the nine games in which he appeared, and was a healthy scratch three times before going on injured reserve with a hamstring injury on Dec. 10.
“My biggest goal is just to stay healthy,” Cunningham said Sunday. “As long as I’m out there on the field getting better and healthy, I feel like I can help the team.
“I mean, that was last year. It’s a new year, a new season. It’s time to do better than last year.”
His teammates have noticed a change in Cunningham.
Rob Ninkovich, who is competing with Cunningham for a starting end spot, said Cunningham’s hard work is respected by his teammates.
“I just think that from his first year until now, obviously he’s matured a little bit,” Ninkovich said. “He’s just kind of taking more of an attitude toward what football is, and it’s busting your butt every day in the weight room and doing everything you can to put your best performance out on the field. So I think this offseason he was just working hard and trying to get back to where he was a couple years ago.
“Any time you have a guy who’s always giving a ton of effort, you obviously respect what they’re doing, so we all respect and think that Jermaine is going to go out there and give it everything he’s got.”
This appears to be a make-or-break season for Cunningham. The Patriots have been unafraid to cut ties with higher picks who haven’t worked out, such as Brandon Meriwether, Darius Butler, Brandon Tate, Terrence Wheatley, and Shawn Crable in recent years.
Cunningham could join that list if he doesn’t transfer his performance in the offseason program to the field. He said his attitude as far as proving himself hasn’t changed.
“I [felt that way] my rookie year, my second year, and I still feel like I do,” Cunningham said.
For an unemployed player, getting a phone call from his agent to meet with a team is good news. But for a player who grew up in Massachusetts, getting a call to meet with the Patriots is even sweeter.
Defensive lineman Tim Bulman, who played at BC High and then Boston College, jumped at the chance to play for the Patriots when he got the call from his agent last week.
“I was like, ‘Oh, man,’ ” he said Sunday. “I told my wife and my mom and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to roll.’ ”
After spending time with the Arizona Cardinals and the Houston Texans, a long way from home (“way too far,” Bulman said), his family is able to see him in camp.
He’s carved out a career after going undrafted, and now he’s looking to contribute in New England again.
“It’s great to be a part of a great organization,” Bulman said. “I was fortunate to be able to get an opportunity to work out for them. And I’m just very glad to have an opportunity to come to camp, compete, try to get better, try to do good things, and possibly help this team out.”
Despite the threat of rain all afternoon, the Patriots announced Sunday’s camp attendance as 14,000-plus, the third time in four days they’ve broken the team record for a session . . . Among the fans on hand was 10-year-old Brandon Marabito of Norton, who was booed by the New York-centric crowd when he was introduced to announce the Patriots’ sixth-round pick at the draft earlier this year. Marabito got to meet Nate Ebner, the player the Patriots chose with the pick he announced, and also punter Zoltan Mesko.
Shalise Manza Young of the Globe staff contributed to this report.