FOXBORO — Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham  returned to Patriots practice on Wednesday and will be eligible to return to game action this Sunday against Miami in the regular season finale. But Bill Belichick  made it clear Wednesday that his return to the starting lineup is hardly automatic.
Cunningham was suspended Nov. 26 for four games by the NFL for violation of the league’s performance enhancing drug policy. At the time of his suspension, Cunningham was coming on stronger than anyone along the defensive line not named Vince Wilfork . He had six tackles against the Jets on Thanksgiving, with 2.5 sacks and six quarterback hits in 11 games before his league-mandated break.
“I think any time a player comes back after an absence for awhile ‘ whatever the reasons are don’t matter ‘ that there’s a combination of catching up mentally to what’s going on but also catching up from a technique standpoint and also communication and reaction,” Belichick said.
“Really, no matter how much a player runs around a track or does situps or whatever, it’s not the same as when the other 21 guys are out there hearing plays called, reacting to what happens on the other side of the play, communicating, making adjustments with your teammates. There’s just no way to do that other than to do it. I think that’s important for any player that’s coming back after missing some time, regardless what the reasons are. That’s definitely something that they need to do and they need to do it with their teammates. It’s something their teammates need to have happen as well as the individual player who wasn’t there himself. All that is part of it.”
Certainly, the bright side of the Cunningham suspension has the increased experience of defensive ends Justin Francis  and Trevor Scott , especially Francis, an undrafted rookie out of Rutgers. Francis got experience he otherwise likely would not have seen on the field.
“It’s certainly a positive for some of the players who get those opportunities,” Belichick said. “If they can take advantage of them and use that opportunity to enhance their role or show through their performance that they’re ready to handle more responsibility, it’s a good thing for them and ultimately it can be a good thing for the team to be able to actually see those guys do it, see those guys improve, watch them get more reps in practice and in the games and get more confidence in them and know that their execution level is higher from that. I’d say that’s accurate.
Cunningham’s return at Wednesday’s walk-through was part of perfect attendance inside Dana-Farber Field House as the team worked out without pads and helmets.