We measure everything. Height. Weight. Speed. Hand size. Body mass. You name it, there is someone who grades it. Now what we do as humans and football fans—although I seriously question if Bills fans are human or drunken baboons—is we insert projections, opinions, and intuition into facts.
The NFL put Zach Cunningham’s film under a microscope and found flaws in the diamond that were unnerving enough to allow him to fall to the 57th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. After his selection by Houston, the All-American linebacker from Vanderbilt grew up throughout a season in which he was thrust into the starting role with Brian Cushing sidelined with a ten game PED suspension. The common thought among spectators and critics was that Cunningham’s lean frame would limit his ability to power through blocks and stronger running backs. Along the same lines, the criticism regarding his tackling fundamentals posed questions as to whether he could change from an arm tackler into a chest/shoulder tackler.
For what he lacks in ideal frame, Cunningham makes up for in grit, knowledge, and consistency. As one of the only bright spots on the entire defense, Cunningham provided much needed speed and versatility along the Texans’ front seven. He led the SEC in tackles in 2016 for a reason; beating out players like B.J. Foster and Jarrad Davis at a school like Vanderbilt is not a random occurrence. The kid has a nose for the ball. Cunningham’s productivity was probably the only thing for the Texans that improved as the season went on. His knowledge stemmed from having played and started for three years. The kid basically put Vandy’s defense on his back for most of his collegiate career. Hopefully his professional career is different, and he can rely on the healthy talent on the Texans’ roster to assist him.
What he can improve on: It felt as though the game was a little fast for Cunningham at the beginning of the season. I saw most of his issues resulting from “watching” the play develop as opposed to reacting to the play. In the first few weeks of the season, I found him getting caught staring into the backfield while bigger offensive linemen were able to engulf him. This was an issue for Cunningham throughout the season, really. Here in the Week 13 game against the Titans (no, not the fun one where we scored 57), he got caught staring at Derrick Henry in the backfield.
Two things caught Cunningham on this play. First, the front side guard directly in front of him pulls to the opposite side of the flow of the offensive line. This is a clear sign that the pull is just a ploy to trick a young and growing linebacker.
Second, as previously mentioned, Cunningham is staring at the RB instead of reacting to the flow and movement of the offensive line. Taylor Lewan is a Pro Bowl left tackle and in this play, he has every advantage over Cunningham. With OLB Gimel President streaking up the field (I have no idea why he is doing this if he is supposed to be containing the play), Cunningham is completely exposed. He decided to go under Lewan’s block. Ideally in this situation, Cunningham has recognized the play before Lewan is basically parallel with him and can redirect Henry to the inside rather than him busting this for a touchdown.
What the future has in store: A starting role as the Texans’ inside linebacker along side Benardrick McKinney seems to be Bill O’Brien’s plans for Cunningham. There are definitely worse situations to fall into as a rookie. Cunningham has already shown that the stage is not too big for him, so this offseason will be important for him to make the next big steps in his career.
I seriously think that Cunningham has a chance to be a Pro Bowler within the next three years. His size and range, along with freakish intangibles, are nicely paired with big-game experience. Whenever the sport you are playing has to change the rule book because of your play, you know you are a crazy athlete. At Vandy, he had to be “the man” at all times. With this current Texans’ roster, he could be purely consistent and accountable, and that will be enough.
Cunningham is too talented to just be “enough,” however. His upside lies in his ability to take the necessary steps this offseason. Becoming more aware of the offensive schemes will come with time, and I am sure he will be given those opportunities. Having Dylan Cole as the rotational LB will help keep him and McKinney fresh throughout a long season. What I appreciate most in Cunningham’s game is the grit and firmness that he attacks the line of scrimmage with. He was never afraid to stick his head into a running back’s chest and take on the best in the league. That is something that is very difficult to cull out of people. Consistency is a desirable trait, especially in a league where each week provides a separate set of challenges. Cunningham provided that in droves this season.
It’s always easy to find negative plays on the internet. I was unable to find the video of his one sack, which ironically occurred in this game as well. Zach will not be a sack-monster. He also is not an interception machine. These were not his talents at Vanderbilt, and I do not think he will develop those in the NFL. But that’ss okay. If he can rack up stats like he did in the last two weeks of the season (22 tackles, 3 TFL, and 3 passes defended), that will be more than enough for a healthy talented Texans defense. A pure run-stopping, play-making, special teams-playing, hard-nosed LB will always have a place in this league.
Zach Cunningham’s development, potential, and trajectory are on a path that’s much faster than many projected. A rookie season that was considered to be a learning and rotational season evolved into a trial by fire. A place besides Benardrick McKinney is a solid landing place for this young and talented linebacker.