Zach Cunningham, once considered a standout on Houston’s defense, has been cut.
Selected by the Texans in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Cunningham was a good weakside linebacker who chased and tackled on what was once an elite front seven. His hands are were bright, clean, and beautiful while Benardrick McKinney’s and D.J. Reader’s hands were bruised, broken and gnarled.
Bill O’Brien didn’t understand this. He extended Cunningham to help anchor Houston’s front seven, something Cunningham had never shown the propensity to do before. Cunningham was handed a four-year, $58 million contract with $23.5 million guaranteed.
Immediately, he was thrown into the fire. Cunningham replaced Benardrick McKinney at Mike linebacker when McKinney went down. Without Reader in front of him, Cunningham was forced to overcome those around him instead of feasting on tackles that were fed to him. Cunningham led the NFL in tackles on a terrible run defense, but along the way he missed dozens of tackles and had horrendous run fits. The Texans’ run defense continued to crumble. Last year, it fell apart.
There was some hope Cunningham could find some of his former performance back at Will linebacker. There he could chase and tackle, dodge offensive linemen climbing to the second level, and deliver kill shots on running backs. That didn’t occur. The same errors he made last year were here again this year. Cunningham was benched on third downs and was unplayable at times. Houston’s run defense is still at the bottom of the league.
It gets even worse. Cunningham was one of the several dumb contract restructures Nick Caserio did last offseason. Cunningham had a cap hit of only $5.7 million, a figure that jumps to $14.7 million. The Texans adjusted his contract to give Cunningham a $7.51 million signing bonus, a decision made so they could sign other linebackers like Kevin Pierre-Louis and Neville Hewitt. This move will eat into Houston’s cap space for next season. The Texans will eat $18.1 million in dead money after cutting Cunningham today.
Now Cunningham is a free agent and can join a potential playoff team. The Tennessee Titans should be an expected landing spot, given his ties to Mike Vrabel, thje respect the Titans have for him, and the fact that Tennessee loves signing former Texans.
It’s the end of the road for Zach Cunningham in Houston. He was a player put in a perfect place to succeed, paid a figure that didn’t warrant his play, and who couldn’t extend his performance beyond the narrow box he was successful in.
But now he’s free.