Jermaine Cunningham, whose rise to relevance this season seemed to squelch concerns he was bound for bust-dom, has been suspended four games for using performance-enhancing substances.
The NFL announced Cunningham's suspension Monday afternoon. The third-year defensive end is eligible to return to the team on December 24 in time for the regular-season finale against Miami.
Cunningham was a second-round pick out of Florida in 2010. As a rookie, he showed promise at outside linebacker and had a key pressure that led to a game-clinching interception against the Colts.
But in 2011, he slid into irrelevance and made just one tackle.
This season, with the Patriots moving even more decidedly to a 4-3 alignment, Cunningham has been a key contributor in pass-rush situations at defensive tackle. He has 2.5 sacks and 15 tackles. Last week, with rookie Chandler Jones injured, Cunningham went to the left defensive end spot on several plays while Rob Ninkovich replaced Jones.
Bill Belichick was effusive in his praise for Cunningham's development in the offseason and training camp. Last week, the Patriots head coach said of Cunningham, "Hes certainly making the most of a lot of opportunities and whatever opportunities hes had, hes earned; they havent been given to him. Hes earned them through his work ethic, performance and production. The harder you work, the more you produce, the more opportunities you get. Thats pro sports. Thats pro football."
The Patriots have now had three players busted by the league for performance enhancers this season -- Cunningham, running back Brandon Bolden and corner Aqib Talib, who tested positive while with the Buccaners.
The NFL does not say which substance was ingested.