Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham
6-3, 234 pounds
Key stat: Cunningham finished 2016 season as SEC leader in tackles (125, 9.6 per game), ranked third in SEC in tackles for loss (16.5) and led conference in fumble recoveries (four).
The skinny: Underclassman declared after another strong season for one of the better seasons in school history as a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the best linebacker in the country. Cunningham had four games with 10 or more tackles in conference play this season. Missed only one game the past three seasons because of injury (2014 vs. Charleston Southern). Has played in both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts at Vandy. Head coach Derek Mason said Cunningham was “among the most decorated players in Commodore football history, and he works as hard as any student-athlete I have ever coached.”
Best-suited destination: Outside linebacker in a fast-flow 4-3 system. He could work as a Derrick Johnson-type of inside linebacker in a 3-4 front as well. There are not many teams for which Cunningham would not be a fit, which makes him a high-floor prospect if he can clean up his tackling technique a bit. A possible Day 1 starter in the NFL, and an effective one if he’s protected and shielded by a strong defensive line in front of him.
Upside: Cunningham always seems to be around the ball, a natural playmaker with good instincts, diagnostic skills and quickness. Packs some pop in his hits and has good hands to stack and shed. His very good athleticism was reflected in a strong NFL scouting combine performance, with testing numbers (a 4.67-second 40-yard dash, 35-inch vertical and 125-inch broad jump) and good position work in drills. He might benefit from the fact that it’s not a loaded year at inside linebacker, and some teams might have knocked Alabama’s Reuben Foster down a peg after he was sent home from the combine. Made game-changing plays, such as a field-goal block against Auburn and a fourth-down stop to seal the game against Georgia (his 19th tackle of the game) in a two-game span for the Commodores.
Downside: Missed tackles are a worry; he seemed to have at least one in almost every game this past season. Too often, Cunningham tries to go up high to tackle ballcarriers, which is something that will not work in the NFL. Not a great pass rusher or blitzer and allowed some catches to be made in front of him in coverage. Tackles a lot of catches, as coaches like to say. He appears to be better — or more natural — in zone coverage and might not be the kind of linebacker who walks out in coverage on a tight end who can threaten the seam. Cunningham also can be overly aggressive, overrunning plays at times.
Scouting hot take: “Our scouting report said that he gets a little greedy, so we tried some misdirection and got him once or twice on that. He keys on motion, but once we went back to the same play a second time, he sniffed it out. WE tried to get our bigs out on him on the second level, but he did a good job against us.” — SEC offensive assistant
Player comp: K.J. Wright
Expected draft range: Top 50 pick, perhaps sneaking into the back end of Round 1
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