As discussed earlier on this site, the Texans have been in contract negotiations with both Deshaun Watson and Zach Cunningham, and the linebacker was the first to cross the green finish line. As reported by NFL’s Ian Rapoport and the Houston Chronicle’s John McClain, the Texans and Zach Cunningham have agreed to a contract that is worth an average of $14.5 million a year over four years, bringing it to a total of $58 million. Cunningham was entering the final year of his rookie contract and is now set for the future in battle red.
The #Texans and standout linebacker Zach Cunningham have agreed to terms on a huge new extension worth $14.5 million per year in new money average, sources tell me and @TomPelissero. Big payday for a rising star, a deal negotiated by @AthletesFirst led by Kyle McCarthy.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 30, 2020
Now that Texans have ILB Zach Cunningham's new deal done for four years, $58 million, first reported by @RapSheet they have one left -- Deshaun Watson.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) August 30, 2020
Since being selected 57th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft (remember Brett’s scouting report?) of Vanderbilt, Zach Cunningham has become an integral piece to the Texans’ defense and one of the most consistent linebackers in the league. In 46 career games, Cunningham has tallied 339 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, and an interception. Now that he has added $14.5 million to his annual salary, Cunningham is one of the highest paid linebackers in the NFL (roughly a little bit more than what the Jaguars are currently paying Myles Jack). After a breakout 2019 campaign, Cunningham has certainly earned his keep and will now be an anchor for the Texans’ defense for the next four+ years. All eyes turn to Deshaun Watson, who is under contract until 2021 via Houston picking up his fifth year option; the Texans aim to sign Watson to an extension of his own before Week 1.
Back to the guy who already signed his extension: This is a great deal for both parties. Cunningham got a big pay day, and Houston gets the best player on the most consistent part of its defense under contract until 2024. Cunningham, along with Benardrick McKinney, forms one of the best inside linebacker duos in the league. Initially making a name for himself in coverage by disrupting plenty of short and mid range passes, Cunningham has since improved his run defense as well. As Pro-Football Focus noted, Cunningham led the league with 47 run stops in 2019. While his zone abilities were not impenetrable (Mark Andrews for the Ravens and the Broncos as a whole come to mind) and his man coverage abilities aren’t either (Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey come to mind), Cunningham is still one of the most versatile linebackers in the NFL.
Houston is, again, taking notes from Mike Vrabel’s linebacker heavy scheme in Tennessee. Last year, on the backs of their speedy linebacking corps of Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, and Harold Landry, the Titans were able to become one of the most difficult teams to run on or score points against. Their most notable performances were in the NFL Playoffs against the Patriots and Ravens, where the defense completely shut down Tom Brady and MVP Lamar Jackson. It was noted during Tennessee’s playoff run that the Titans were using their speed and gap plugging ability to force rushers to beat them outside, a strategy that paid dividends in the form of an AFC Championship Game appearance. The Patriots and Ravens’ running game was eliminated, and their coverage squeezed their passing game to the sideline, which was neither teams’ strong suit. The linebackers’ coverage also forced Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson to hold onto the ball longer than they expected, which created turnovers.
With the retention of Zach Cunningham and the fact that every team in the AFC South wants to run the ball, it appears the Texans will attempt to live by a similar sort of philosophy. Forcing them to play your game is always a good idea.
However, with a defensive line that provided about as much pressure as passing wind and a suspect cornerback group, teams will welcome the opportunity to throw on Houston. As such, Zach Cunningham will either be expected to improve his coverage abilities even more and continue to clog up the gaps so that other linebackers to take over coverage duty. Ideally, Cunningham’s coverage for a short to medium range passing attack will improve, encouraging quarterbacks to dare to fire deep into Justin Reid territory. I suspect that this reliance on the star power on all three levels to continue be a trend on the field this year. J.J. Watt will keep the pressure on when he’s healthy, Zach Cunningham will stuff the run or force incompletions on short passes, and Justin Reid will roam the backfield and make deep passes a frightening prospect for any daring quarterback.
Even if the Texans give up plenty of yards, all they need to do is follow Vrabel’s defense and (dare I say it) tighten up in the red zone. If any of these stars are injured or play below expectations, Houston’s defense will collapse. If all stay healthy and play well, Anthony Weaver’s new and improved defense may hum to a respectable positioning in the quarantined annals of the NFL.
Cunningham has been a bright spot on a murky defense for the past few years. He should continue to be a star for years to come. Houston made the right decision in extending him, and the contract handed out was fair for a player of his talent.
You can follow Joe Critz on Twitter @FizzyJoe