Zach Cunningham Scouting Report By Charlie Campbell
Very good instincts
Gifted pass-coverage linebacker
Impressive man-coverage ability versus tight ends and running backs
Can drop into zone coverage
Above-average height and length for a linebacker
Tough run defender
Flashes ability to shed blocks
Can get off blocks and make tackle
Fits a 4-3 or 3-4 defense
Always around the ball
Quick to the flat
Inconsistent taking on blocks; sometimes runs around them
Not a game changer
Not a violent tackler
Lacks instant acceleration
Lean frame; his weight is all bone
Summary: Prior to the 2016 season, there was a buzz about Cunningham in scouting circles as he was a standout in fall camp after having an impressive sophomore season. Cunningham totaled 103 tackles with 16.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, three passes batted and four forced fumbles in 2015.
Cunningham was even better in 2016. While Alabama's Reuben Foster had a bigger name and received more awards, Cunningham produced a lot more than Foster did. Cunningham also made some huge game-changing plays that led to Vanderbilt pulling off upsets to beat Ole Miss and Georgia. On the year, he totaled 125 tackles with 16.5 for a loss, three passes batted and two forced fumbles.
For the NFL, Cunningham does everything well and there isn't a serious weakness in his game. His run defense covers sideline to sideline with the quickness to track down ball-carriers. Cunningham has very good instincts and is very good at reading his keys and exploding through the scrum to take down backs. He is big enough to defend against downhill runs coming straight at him. In terms of getting off blocks, Cunningham is a mixed story. There were plays where he was quite impassive to shed blocks and then make a tackle. Then on other plays, he would try to run around blocks rather than taking them on. He needs to improve at more consistently taking on blocks in the NFL. Adding some more muscle to his lean frame could help him to execute that.
Cunningham is very well-suited for pass coverage in today's NFL. As a professional, he could be an asset as a linebacker weapon to neutralize receiving threat tight ends in man-to-man coverage. Cunningham has good height and length to match up on tight ends with the speed to get down the seam. He was very good in coverage for Vanderbilt last season. For running backs out of the backfield, Cunningham is also able to blanket them. In zone coverage, Cunningham is skilled to pick up receivers coming into his area and keeping them from getting open. He also flashed as a blitzer when given the opportunity to rush the passer. Cunningham should be a true three-down defender in the NFL.
There are some scouting sources who really like Cunningham and others who more lukewarm. One scout said, "I worry at his current size and mass holding vs. the run. He has the frame to be 245 so hopefully he can get there. He's so narrow-trunked and thin-legged; just not much growth potential in lower half to indicate a guy who'll ever be an explosive take on player. His weight is all bone. That being said I like Zach. More of an Eagle front Sam or 3-4 Will linebacker to me as far as maximizing his skill set, reducing the number of blocks taking on offensive linemen for him. He'll handle tight ends and fullbacks fine."
For the NFL, Cunningham has three-down starting potential. Being a run-and-chase Will (weakside) linebacker in a 3-4 defense would be a great fit for Cunningham. In a 4-3 defense, he could be a Mike (middle) linebacker if he adds weight and improves at taking on offensive linemen. Otherwise, he could be a Will or Sam (strongside).
In the 2017 NFL Draft, Cunningham has a shot to be a late first-round pick. Most sources, however, think he probably ends up going in the second round.
Player Comparison: Derrick Johnson. Sources have compared Cunningham to Johnson, which makes a lot of sense. Johnson (6-3, 242) and Cunningham have the same build while both being instinctive linebackers who have a serious presence in the middle of the field. Johnson was a first-round pick out of Texas. In the NFL, I could see Cunningham being a linebacker similar to Johnson, although maybe not quite as good.
NFL Matches: Miami, Detroit, New York Giants, Houston, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Buffalo, Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland, Denver, Kansas City, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Arizona
There are a lot of teams that could consider drafting Cunningham late in the first round and into Round 2. Miami had a big need at linebacker entering the offseason, and even after free agency, the team could consider Cunningham in the first or second round. The Lions could use more linebacker talent. Cunningham would be a great fit for Detroit in during the first two rounds.
The Raiders have a huge need at middle linebacker as the interior of their defense was shredded last year. Cunningham would be an instant upgrade. Staying in the AFC West, the Chargers are switching to a 4-3 defense and let Manti Te'o leave in free agency. Cunningham could form a nice tandem with Denzel Perryman. Denver could use a linebacker upgrade ever since losing Danny Trevathan a year ago. Kansas City also could consider Cunningham as an understudy to Derrick Johnson.
The Texans need a linebacker upgrade next to Bernardrick McKinney as Brian Cushing has become a liability on the field. Houston has bigger needs for Round 1, but Cunningham could be an option for the Texans' second-round pick. The rival Colts need a linebacker upgrade, too, and Cunningham would be a great pick for them in the second round.
Green Bay has needed an inside linebacker upgrade for years, but Ted Thompson hasn't been inclined to take one in the early rounds. Thus, Cunningham to Green Bay seems very unlikely even though he would be a great fit in the Packers' 3-4 scheme.
The Bills could use a Will (weakside) linebacker to add to their change to a 4-3. Cunningham could form a nice tandem with Reggie Ragland.
The Bengals could use more linebacker talent next to Vontaze Burfict, and Cunningham could be a fit for them in Round 2.
The 49ers could use an inside linebacker upgrade, and Cunningham could be in play for them at the top of Day 2. Staying in the NFC West, Arizona needs an inside linebacker upgrade after moving on from Kevin Minter.