2017 NFL DRAFT

Zach Cunningham, OLB

School: Vanderbilt  |  Conference: SEC
College Experience: Junior  |  Hometown: Pinson, AL
Height/Weight: 6-3 / 234 lbs.
Projected Ranking
OverallPositionProj. Rnd.
2521

Player Lowdown

Combine Results
40 Yd 20 Yd 10 Yd 225 Bench Vertical jump Broad Shuttle 3-Cone Drill
Workout Results
40 Yd 20 Yd 10 Yd 225 Bench Vertical jump Broad Shuttle 3-Cone Drill
4.67--15 3510'4"--

Mock Draft Expert Analysis

  • Detroit Lions | #21
    The Lions addressed concerns along the offensive and defensive lines through free agency but lost speed at linebacker with the decision to release DeAndre Levy. Cunningham, a two-time All-SEC pick, has the range and length to fill this hole immediately.
  • Oakland Raiders | #24
    The Raiders could use a tough, rangy linebacker and Cunningham fits the bill with his ball awareness, play speed and length to keep himself free from blocks.
  • Kansas City Chiefs | #27
    They need a linebacker with Derrick Johnson coming off a torn Achilles tendon.
  • No Analysis Available
  • Washington Redskins | #17
    Washington lost both its top receivers and free agency and there?s still uncertainty around Kirk Cousins, but run defense is still its biggest issue. Cunningham can come in right away and solidify an important area.
 

Player Overview

Relatively meager supporting casts only made the talent of former Vanderbilt stars like wideout Jordan Matthews (2014), quarterback Jay Cutler (2006) and inside linebacker Jamie Winborn (2001) shine that much brighter.

In Cunningham, the Commodores boast a similarly obvious talent. The first unanimous All-American in Commodores' history, Cunningham led the Southeastern Conference with 125 tackles (including 16.5 tackles for loss) in 2016, earning First Team All-SEC honors for the second consecutive season. This included an incredible 19 tackle performance in Vanderbilt's road upset win over Georgia. He also recovered four fumbles, forced another two and showed off his remarkable raw athleticism with a leaping block of a field goal to nearly complete another road upset, this one of then No. 5 Auburn.

Cunningham's ascent into superstardom was not surprising to those paying attention a year earlier when he posted similar numbers (103 tackles, including 16.5 for loss, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries) despite not starting until the third game of season.

Though he looked more like a safety or even wide receiver at approximately 6-feet-3, 205 pounds throughout the recruiting process, Cunningham drew interest from prominent programs from all over the country. He visited Auburn, Oregon and Tennessee before ultimately committing to the Commodores, citing Vanderbilt's high academic standards and proximity to his hometown. Now approximately 30 pounds heavier, expect NFL teams to show similar excitement in adding him to their roster.

His head coach at Vanderbilt, Derek Mason, is certainly a fan.

"If you can find a better defensive player in the SEC or in college football, show him to me," Mason said at the mid-point of the 2016 season. "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."

Cunningham recorded 295 career tackles (39.5 for losses), seven forced fumbles and six sacks during three seasons with the Commodores. Vanderbilt has produced only two first-round draft picks in the past 30 years -- with Jay Cutler (Denver Broncos) and offensive tackle Chris Williams (Chicago Bears, 2008). With the range and playmaking ability to star against today's up-tempo offenses, expect Cunningham to add to the Commodores' total in 2017.

Strengths Weaknesses

STRENGTHS: Cunningham sports a long-levered frame with broad shoulders, a tapered middle and plenty of room for additional muscle mass without significantly impacting his impressive quickness, agility and speed. He attacks oncoming blockers with an aggressive and powerful initial punch, quickly disengaging on his way to the ball. Unlike most linebackers with his length, Cunningham shows good recognition and body control to slip cut blocks, as well, sprawling to maintain his balance and rarely losing sight of the ball. Cunningham is able to convert speed to power as a tackler, showing no hesitancy in the hole against big (or small) runners and ripping at the ball, when possible. Cunningham's future in the NFL could be on the outside as he possesses the range and body control to excel in space. He changes direction well for a man of his size, showing light feet and loose hips. He possesses the range to beat backs to the edge, as well as exciting closing speed while in pursuit and coverage. Cunningham shows good awareness of passing lanes, as well as the body control and long arms to contort in space to knock down throws.

WEAKNESSES: While Cunningham's size, athleticism and awareness are certainly appealing, there is room for improvement, including in the most important area for any linebacker -- tackling. In part because of Cunningham's relatively lanky frame, his pad level is often higher while tackling then preferred. Cunningham often wrestles runners to the ground with his upper-body strength rather than consistently driving them back through his hips. This can leave Cunningham a little off-balance at the point of attack, leading to his catching runners and pulling them down (after surrendering another yard after contact) or, occasionally, missing them altogether. Cunningham could also improve as a pass rusher, too often relying on a quick hand slap, bull rush or his speed (rather than refined technique) to defeat blocks.

IN OUR VIEW: Cunningham looks more like an outside linebacker for a 4-3 alignment than a traditional inside linebacker for a 3-4 scheme. 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.

COMPARES TO: Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs: 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. 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.

--Rob Rang (1/23/17)

 
 
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