Zach Cunningham - Vanderbilt Commodores
Position: Inside Linebacker
Hometown: Pinson, AL
Experience: Jr. - 3 year starter
40yd dash: 4.67
Broad jump: 125”
20yd. Shuttle: 4.29
Bench Press: 15
Cunningham came out of high school in Birmingham, AL in 2012 as an All-State athlete and three-year varsity starting linebacker, who also had a strong basketball and track background. After redshirting his first year at Vanderbilt, Cunningham went on to start at inside linebacker in the Commodore’s defense midway through the 2014 season.
Cunningham reprised the starting role in 2015 and went on to even earn All-SEC honors. As a redshirt sophomore, Cunningham led Vanderbilt in tackles with 103 and tackles for loss with 16.5. He also recorded 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, flashing some playmaking ability on defense. Cunningham’s solid play in 2015 generated some draft buzz for him, making him one of the more anticipated linebackers to watch heading into the 2016 season.
Cunningham certainly didn’t disappoint with his 2016 performance. In fact, the redshirt junior raised his game to a new level and proved to scouts he can consistently impact games on the field as a three-down linebacker. He led the SEC in tackles with 125 stops on his way to being a unanimous first-team All-American, while also recording a team-leading 16.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
In his two-and-half years starting at Vanderbilt, Cunningham established himself as one of the top linebackers in college football. With a strong combine performance this spring, the Alabama native has solidified himself as an early-round draft prospect.
Since taking over the starting inside linebacker spot his redshirt sophomore season, Cunningham never missed a start in college. He’s one of the few linebacker prospects without a significant injury in his playing history.
Inside Run Defense: 4.0/5.0
Cunningham is an aggressive run defender between the tackles. He crashes down against blocks or shoots the A-gap to get into the backfield and bring down the ball carrier for a loss. His excellent upfield explosion and play anticipation allow him to be a disruptive player against the run. While he’s not the strongest inside linebacker, which can cause him to get hung up on blocks at times, he does have the length to stay disengaged a majority of the time. This allows him to run free and swarm to the ball, while using his excellent instincts to read and react to the offense. Granted, it still wouldn’t hurt for him to add some weight to help prevent him from getting swallowed up by blocks. He’s at his best when he’s kept clean and doesn’t have to battle offensive linemen at the point of attack. He would benefit from a playing behind a big defensive lineman who can take on double-teams and hold his ground at the line of scrimmage.
Outside Run Defense: 5.0/5.0
Cunningham plays best in space, and he has the straight-line speed and football awareness to quickly get outside the tackle box and make plays on the boundary. Sometimes he gets sloppy with his tackling technique out in space. He doesn’t always set his feet and establish a square base before making contact, which leads to him reaching too much and trying to arm tackle. However, this is a fixable problem at the next level. Despite this, Cunningham still makes a lot of plays outside the tackles. He’s excellent in pursuit. His ability to read and react to run progressions and chase down ball carriers outside the tackle box is elite.
Pass Rush: 2.0/5.0
On tape, Cunningham shows very little evidence of a pass rush game. In 2016, he didn’t record a single sack and seldom blitzed on third downs. The majority of the time Cunningham dropped in coverage in passing situations. He did find some success in this area in his sophomore season, showing some ability to get pressure blitzing off the edge, but overall, Cunningham lacks the strength and pass rushing moves to generate consistent pressure as a blitzer.
Pass Coverage: 4.5/5.0
It’s hard to find another linebacker who holds up as well in coverage as Cunningham. He has the athleticism and speed to hold his own matched one-on-one in coverage against tight ends or halfbacks. His height and length also helps when defending tight ends down the seam. He was even successful against slot receivers. Cunningham frequently line up over the slot and was effective shadowing receivers across the field. His best role in coverage, however, is dropping in a mid-range zone and picking up traffic in his area. He reacts well to receivers’ route progressions and does a nice job closing in on the ball when it’s thrown in his vicinity. He can tackle a little too high when closing in on a guy after the catch, but again, this is an issue that is easily fixable at the next level.
Athletic Ability: 4.5/5.0
Even with a wiry frame, Cunningham is an explosive athlete. He possesses good straight-line speed and lower body explosion. He backpedals well, looking fluid flipping his hips to turn and run downfield. He also shows quick lateral movement, which allows him to quickly get outside the tackle box. The one area Cunningham still needs to improve on his at times he plays too high, which stiffens his change of direction ability. He needs to work on keeping his pads low when he flows to the ball. This can also cause him to over pursue and then struggle to re-establish his base when he tries to cutback to make the stop. Overall, Cunningham is a better straight-line athlete with good upfield explosion than a guy who moves fluidly and is agile in space.
Impact Play Ability: 4.5/5.0
Cunningham was a one-man wrecking in Vanderbilt’s defense. On a squad with no other NFL talent, the athletic inside linebacker raised his level of play and found ways to impact games. He recorded 33 tackles for loss in his last two years as a starter. He constantly swarms to the ball and brings a passion and energy to the field. His excellent football awareness allows him to put himself into positions to make plays. He’s a defender opposing offenses have to gameplan against. Frequenlty, Cunningham shows up in key moments to make a clutch stop or pass breakup. Against Georgia, he showed a Herculean-type effort to hustle and take down the ball carrier near the sidelines inches short of the first down on a game-deciding 4th-and-1. His motor never stops, and even though he can play reckless at times, Cunningham’s aggressive playing style sets a tone on defense.
Summary: Cunningham could go anywhere from the late-first round to the mid-second round of the draft. He’s one of the top linebackers in the class, and he can fit in multiple schemes. In a 4-3 front, he’d fit best as a weakside linebacker, where he can move in space and make plays in pursuit. However, in a 3-4 he’d fit best as a weakside inside linebacker. He could also play well as a nickel linebacker because of his athleticism and ability to drop in coverage. He’s a true three-down linebacker at the next level. At 6-foot-3, 234 pounds and with 34.5-inch arms, Cunningham offers rare length to the linebacker position. He also has the frame to add more weight without losing a step on the field.
Overall Grade: 4.08/5.0
If Drafted by the Packers:
Cunningham’s ability to play in coverage would be an immediate benefit to their defense. The Packers primarily run nickel, and having an inside linebacker like Cunningham on their roster would give them a player who can roam the middle of the field on passing downs and hold up against athletic tight ends down the seam or running backs coming out of the backfield.
Green Bay could also use more athleticism and speed at the inside linebacker position, and Cunningham would give them just that. He’s a physical run defender with the ability to run and chase and make plays outside of the tackle box. He would fit well alongside Jake Ryan in the middle of the defense. While Ryan has a bit more strength and size to hold up between the tackles, Cunningham has the instincts and burst to roam and make plays off the ball.
The Packers need more impact players on defense, regardless of which position they find them at, so adding a player of Cunningham’s caliber would instantly improve their defense. Every good defense in the NFL has a player in the middle of their unit that sets the tone and brings a physical presence to the field. Currently, Green Bay lacks this on their roster, but Cunningham could be a player that could fulfill this role.
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