Why the Slide?: Zach Cunningham

By Charlie Campbell, @draftcampbell

Three years ago, we started a series of articles on why certain prospects went undrafted. In that series, I reach out to sources with NFL teams to find out why their organizations passed on drafting a given player, and/or, what were the reasons for other teams to pass on that prospect. We got a lot of positive reader feedback about the series, so we decided to expand in the genre to investigate why some prospects slid in the draft. A year later, we started the Why Slide? series, and this year, it is back. Feel free to email me requests for “Why the Slide?” and “Why Undrafted?” at [email protected]. I can’t promise to get to all of them, but I will do my best and definitely respond.

During the 2016 college football season, the most productive and impactful linebacker in the nation was Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham. While Alabama’s Reuben Foster had a bigger name and received more awards, Cunningham produced more than Foster did and carried his defense as Foster had tons of NFL talent surrounding him. Cunningham made some huge game-changing plays that led to Vanderbilt pulling off upsets to beat Ole Miss and Georgia. He totaled 125 tackles with 16.5 for a loss, three passes batted and two forced fumbles on the season. Cunningham (6-3, 234) showed nice speed and athleticism in pre-draft workouts. Many were projecting Cunningham to be a first-round pick, but in the 2017 NFL Draft, he slid to the back half of the second round.

According to sources, Cunningham slid for a few reasons. The first and most important was concern about him having a thin lower body. Some teams felt that Cunningham would have a hard time holding up and staying healthy because of his lean-boned body going against NFL front lines. They thought he could be prone to a lot of annoying, nagging injuries that can come from players trying to add quick weight when they don’t have the natural build to do it. Missing tackles was another criticism, but scouts across the league said Cunningham had impressive tape and was a good player. The question was on whether he would translate to the next level.

In our pre-draft scouting report, one team scout from a franchise in the market for linebacker had this to say about Cunningham, “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.”

The Houston Texans ended Cunningham’s fall, which was a great landing spot for him. Sources from other teams said that was a perfect fit for Cunningham to pan out in the NFL and overcome some of the concerns. The Texans’ 3-4 defense already has one of the best young linebackers in the NFL with Benardrick McKinney. He is a huge, strong and tough linebacker who can take on blocks and free up Cunningham to be the Will – weak side – linebacker. That will reduce the number of blocks that Cunningham will have to take on as McKinney is very skilled at taking on and shedding blocks. That will allow Cunningham to run and chase using his speed and instincts to hunt down ball-carriers.

Cunningham also is very good in pass coverage, and Houston needed a linebacker who can cover backs out of the backfield as that hurt the team’s No. 1 defense last year. Brian Cushing can’t cover anymore, while McKinney is not well-suited for that role. Cunningham is, and as a rookie, he can rotate with Cushing. That will protect Cunningham as he can be a platoon player to ease into the NFL while he gains weight and strength for the pro game. Cushing is still decent as a run defender, and Cunningham can replace Cushing in passing situations. In a year then, Houston can move on from Cushing with Cunningham ready to take over. Along with McKinney, the Texans have superstar talent in J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, who will get the attention from offenses. Other teams feel that Cunningham landed with the perfect team for him to pan out and turn into a difference-maker on one of the best defenses in the NFL.

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