The 2017 NFL Draft is littered with first-round defenders from the Southeastern Conference. Texas A&M edge-rusher Myles Garrett, Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and LSU safety Jamal Adams are all considered excellent candidates to be among the first five players selected.
In the opinion of Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, Commodores linebacker Zach Cunningham is every bit as talented. “If you can find a better defensive player in the SEC or in college football, show him to me,” Mason told Rob Rang of CBS Sports. “Richard Sherman was one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached,” Mason said. “I think Zach falls into that realm of guys who can take it from the class to the grass and put it in game situations and be big.”
For his part, the 6’3″, 234-pound Cunningham, who tallied 125 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss in 2016, touted his speed and range while speaking with Tim Twentyman of the Detroit Lions’ website.
“I think I’m a lengthy player,” Cunningham said. A pretty fast player. Speed. A sideline-to-sideline player. And that’s something that has helped me. That and my instincts have helped me to be a good player.”
That same quickness and range stood out on film to Steve Palozzolo of Pro Football Focus. “The first thing that stands out when watching Cunningham is his speed and physicality,” Palozzolo said. “When left unblocked, he flies to the ball and his strong closing speed puts him in position on a number of plays. Cunningham attacks blockers with vigor, aggressively using his hands to take on and defeat blocks in the run game. The athleticism shows up in coverage as well, as Cunningham has the range to make plays in zone coverage as well as the movement skills to match up with opposing tight ends and running backs. He uses his length to make plays on the ball in coverage, and that’s a part of his game that will make him an excellent NFL prospect as his understanding of the game continues to progress.”
Ditto for an AFC scout who spoke with Lance Zierlein of NFL.com. “He needs to be uncovered so he can fly around and just go get the ball,” the scout said. “He didn’t have much help over there and he took it upon himself to make as many plays as possible. I love that mindset.”
Rang believes Cunningham’s best NFL fit is as the WILL linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, while comparing the youngster to long-time IDP stalwart Derrick Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs. “Cunningham looks more like an outside linebacker for a 4-3 alignment than a traditional inside linebacker for a 3-4 scheme,” he said. “He isn’t always the cleanest tackler but as his statistics suggest, he certainly gets the job done. The time spent inside has honed Cunningham’s instincts and ability to fight through blocks, though he remains at his best on the chase.”
“It is hard not to remember a young Johnson at Texas when watching Cunningham, who possesses a similar rangy frame, speed and nose for the ball,” Rang continued. “Like the Chiefs’ 12-year veteran, Cunningham possesses Pro Bowl potential with the skill-set to translate into the 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.”
For Zierlein, on the other hand, the comp is Alec Ogletree of the Los Angeles Rams. “Cunningham’s missed tackles and lack of desired play strength could bother teams,” he said, “but his consistent production is hard to ignore. Cunningham is a rangy, three-down linebacker who has a nose for the ball and special teams value. His downhill approach is made for attacking 4-3 defenses and Cunningham could become a good, early starter as a run-and-chase weak-side linebacker.”
As Zierlein said, Cunningham was prone to whiffing on stops after leaving his feet at Vanderbilt, and while he’s a quick-twitch linebacker he ran into some problems with getting overpowered at the point of attack. However, he told Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated he believes he can add some weight without sacrificing speed.
“That’s definitely been a knock that I’ve heard about me, being able to have that strength, playing at the linebacker position,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been around 225-230 [pounds]. So most of the questions I’ve gotten [are]: would I be able to put on say 10 more pounds and play at that weight? Would I be O.K. with that. And that’s something I would definitely be open to. I think with my frame, that’s something I would be able to do.”
Burke wrote that Cunningham’s range and athleticism should help him stay on the field in passing subpackages, while comparing his game to a young Kiko Alonso. “As he showed during drills at the combine, Cunningham also brings the athleticism to play in coverage. His football intelligence serves him well when dropping into a zone, but he also can body up tight ends going across the middle or slip out to work against running backs. The team that drafts him should have minimal concerns about using him as a three-down defender.”
Of course, that belief that Cunningham can play an every-down role is music to the ears of IDP owners — as is the comps to a trio of linebackers who have shown top 10 fantasy upside. But as we’ve learned more than once in the past, potential and production are not the same thing.
It’s possible that Cunningham could sneak into the back half of the first round, although it’s probably more likely that he’ll be drafted early on Day 2. In the right situation (one where the path is relatively clear to early playing time, Cunningham could land in LB3/4 territory as a risk/reward upside pick in redraft formats. In that favorable scenario Cunningham will be in the conversation to be one of the first rookie IDPs selected in dynasties, especially with Reuben Foster‘s draft (and fantasy) stock faltering a bit as draft day nears.
A less than ideal landing spot would obviously take some of the luster off Cunningham’s fantasy prospects for 2017, but we just won’t think about that.
With the draft less than a week away it’s time to unleash the power of positive thinking.