Korey Cunningham has perfected the new employee blueprint: Keep your head down, work hard, and when an opportunity presents itself, make the most of it.
The Cardinals' tackle was expected to be a de facto redshirt in 2018, using his rookie season to watch and learn from the veterans on the offensive line. Injuries forced him into action two weeks ago at left tackle, and after holding up well – combined with the parallel struggles of veteran Andre Smith – Cunningham has earned himself a full-time job.
Smith was released on Monday after allowing a pair of sacks on Sunday against the Chargers, and coach Steve Wilks was quick to announce Cunningham as his new right tackle.
"He's getting this opportunity because he deserves it," Wilks said. "He's proven himself."
Cunningham performed nicely in his debut two games ago, but there was still apprehension because it came against the Raiders' poor pass rush. The learning curve steepened on Sunday as he faced off against Los Angeles edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but Cunningham only allowed two pressures in 44 pass-blocking snaps and registered the best run-blocking grade on the team, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I always like a challenge," Cunningham said. "I knew it was going to be a handful. I know those are two of the most elite guys in the league. I knew coming in I'd have my hands full, but you've just got to trust your coaching and trust your technique."
The Cardinals drafted Cunningham in the seventh round in April, which seemed late for a player who was 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds with athleticism. Cunningham thought he would go in the fourth or fifth round.
"As the days kept going and I kept falling and falling, of course I was upset on the inside," Cunningham said. "I saw it as motivation. I was like, 'Alright, wherever I get to, wherever I'm going, I'm going to work my butt off.'"
Cunningham lasted until the final round because he was raw. He originally went to the University of Cincinnati as a 225-pound tight end and acknowledged he "didn't know what to do at all" after getting moved to offensive line. Eventually, he started all 12 games at right tackle as a junior and then 12 games at left tackle as a senior for the Bearcats, and he feels qualified to play either side without issue.
Wilks referred to him on Monday as a late bloomer, and the Cardinals are hoping he ends up a draft-day steal.
"We can go through the history of the league and see guys that were drafted sixth, seventh (round) or even free agents that turned out to be pretty good players," Wilks said. "Tom Brady being one. I'm not putting him in that category at all, but we'll see exactly what he can do moving forward. So far he's been improving."
Cunningham is the fourth rookie from the draft class to earn a starting job on offense, alongside quarterback Josh Rosen, wide receiver Christian Kirk and center Mason Cole. He is the biggest surprise among them, the lowest of the draft picks who earlier this month was firmly planted on the bench.
"I knew one day my number was going to get called," Cunningham said. "I didn't know it was going to be this soon, but I'm glad it did."
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