Cunningham, who finished his career at Louisville ranked fourth in school history with 9,664 passing yards and third with 3,184 rushing yards, spent the first five weeks of the season on the team’s practice squad.
He is expected to be active as the Patriots (1-4) visit the Raiders (2-3) on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).
The Patriots rank last in the NFL in points per game, and the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Cunningham could be utilized in a run-based package to complement starting quarterback Mac Jones. He has also worked extensively at receiver, where the Patriots are shorthanded with JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie Demario “Pop” Douglas ruled out for the game due to concussions.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick had foreshadowed his plans with Cunningham, who also plays on special teams units, by saying Friday that he was “definitely trending” towards an opportunity on game day.
The team could have elevated Cunningham from the practice squad and then had him revert there after the game, but instead signed him to a three-year deal on their 53-man roster.
“Malik has really worked hard and made a lot of improvement,” Belichick said. “Anybody that keeps improving, eventually you’ll probably get an opportunity to play.”
Earlier in the week, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien called Cunningham “probably one of the most improved practice squad players we have.”
Cunningham was one of the Patriots’ most exciting players in the preseason opener, when he rushed for 34 yards on five carries, including a 9-yard touchdown. He was also 3-of-4 passing for 19 yards in that game, playing primarily against backup Texans players late in the game.
The Patriots waived Cunningham at the final roster cutdown before bringing him back the next day on the practice squad.
As part of their roster shuffling Saturday, the Patriots also placed outside linebacker Matthew Judon and offensive tackle Tyrone Wheatley Jr. on injured reserve, activated wide receiver Tyquan Thornton to the 53-man roster from injured reserve and elevated receiver Jalen Reagor and defensive tackle Jeremiah Pharms Jr. from the practice squad for Sunday’s game.