While he’s yet to officially declare for the 2017 NFL Draft, Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham is a name you can expect to see called on Draft Day come April. Cunningham has flourished down in Nashville for the Commodores. He led the SEC in solo tackles this past season on his way to his 2nd consecutive 1st Team All-SEC honor.
With 6 siblings, he has paved the way for his younger brothers as both have followed in his football footsteps. Cunningham played with a chip on his shoulder throughout his college career. The Alabama native wasn’t even offered by the in-state Crimson Tide despite receiving numerous offers from other big time schools and his 4-star recruit status.
Prior to the 2016 season, many labeled Cunningham as “the best LB you haven’t heard of” or the most underrated prospect in the draft crop and you could even see his name slated in the 1st round of most mock drafts. Was he able to cement that status and live up to the high praise?
Name: Zach Cunningham
Class: Junior (RS)
Comparison: Benardrick McKinney (Houston Texans)
Draft Grade: Day 2
Positives: Best trait is his ability to weave through traffic and fit through tight spaces in pursuit of ball carrier. Physical tackler who makes the highlight takedowns. Good run defender on inside runs. Patrols the A-Gaps well. Battles with the offensive line and engages physically. Possesses length and range. Adequate closing speed. Plays better in coverage when in front of receiver – typically in zone. Will engage the pass catcher with physicality in those situations. Excels in the redzone and led the top redzone defense in the nation. Gained the reputation as a clutch player and backed it up – recorded the game-clinching tackle for no gain on 4th & 1 at Georgia this past season. Can add 10-15 pounds to his 6’4” frame. Age friendly prospect who will only be 22 as a rookie. Has a good head on his shoulders.
Negatives: Below average athleticism. Lacks burst when in pursuit. Unreliable motor – typically doesn’t get back into play with too far of proximity. Combine numbers may disguise game speed. Not as reliable of a tackler as the numbers may suggest. Needs to get stronger at the point of attack. Too loose when taking on/shaking off blocks. Misses more solo tackle opportunities than he should. Doesn’t always approach ball carrier upright and will instead go for a desperate dive tackle. Fails to get in position on pitches and runs to the outside. Slow at breaking through offensive fronts which limits his blitzing ability. Tries to get too fancy at times in pursuit rather than just hitting the running holes. Sloppy footwork when recovering in man coverage up the seam. Appeared to not call adjustments from the LB corps, but not yet confirmed.
Outlook: Zach Cunningham enjoyed an extremely productive career with the Commodores as he racked up the accolades. This included First Team All-Sec honors the past 2 seasons while finishing this year as a Chuck Bednarik Award semifinalist. I came away a bit underwhelmed when observing Cunningham. He wasn’t the “sure tackler” that I expected. With that being said, he can be a decent 2 down back at the next level due to his ability to shoot the A gaps on inside runs. His ideal fit is as an ILB in a 3-4 scheme for a team like Pittsburgh or Arizona. Can also play in traditional 4-3 setups. Compares well to Benardrick McKinney of the Houston Texans. Former 2nd round pick was also a tackling machine in the middle for an SEC squad. Similar size when drafted as well. Cunningham isn’t a 1st round talent, but he could be useful for a team at some point on Day 2.