Entering the 2020 NFL Season, Pro Football Focus is ranking various individual players at each position. Earlier this week, they ranked the top 25 linebackers in the NFL, and both of the Texans’ starting inside linebackers landed in the middle of this group.
13. Zach Cunningham, Houston Texans
Cunningham is perhaps most well known for how he uses his length to impact the passing game in coverage, but he’s starting to become one of the league’s better run defenders at the position. His 47 run stops in 2019 were nine more than the second-place Kuechly at linebacker, driving a career-high run-defense grade of 84.8.
His coverage grade in the 50s wasn’t nearly as impressive, but you have to factor in that his situation plays a role in that grade. Cunningham played more man-coverage snaps than any other linebacker last season (239), and players like Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey and Mark Andrews were able to produce several big plays against Cunningham in man coverage. Covering receivers who are that talented one-on-one is a tough ask for any linebacker. His consistency, run defense and versatility still makes him one of the top linebackers in the NFL.
14. Benardrick McKinney, Houston Texans
McKinney comes in one spot below his teammate Cunningham on the list, profiling more as a traditional run-stopper at nearly 260 pounds. He wasn’t quite as good this past season as he has been in years past, but when looking at the past five seasons as a whole, McKinney’s 86.8 run-defense grade ranks fifth among the 66 linebackers with 2,000 or more defensive snaps.
He’s not as versatile as Cunningham in coverage, but he isn’t a big negative there, either. McKinney has picked up PFF coverage grades of 70.0 or higher in three of the past five seasons. Houston has one of the best linebacker duos in the league heading into 2020.
Cunningham has one of the best jobs in football: Play weakside linebacker, outrun slogging offensive guards climbing to the second level, and deliver clean and clear shots on running backs. Just don’t ask him to cover great running backs in space on his own.
McKinney bludgeons offensive guards, going through them to turn the hole into a massacre, and strangling running backs’ paths. Like Cunningham, he struggles covering on his own; McKinney is worse than Cunningham is, yet both players have a good grasp on playing zone coverage and can carry out an assortment of tasks.