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The Houston Texans are reportedly waiving linebacker Zach Cunningham, which means he's likely going to have new teammates very soon. He's broken the 100-tackle mark each of the last three years, and his 164 combined tackles led the entire NFL in 2020. He has just 67 tackles in 10 games this season, and he's struggled with disciplinary issues, but spending time with a team that's not the Texans might help him be a tad bit more productive.
Cunningham will either get picked up on waivers, or if not, he'll become a free agent. He has no guarantees money-wise for 2022, and whoever claims him would only absorb a $275,000 cap hit. With the season now in the home stretch, and many teams entering do-or-die mode, Cunningham could be a valuable pickup. It's rare for a starting-caliber linebacker to be available this late in the season, and here are five teams that should jump on the chance to claim him.
The Ravens have their problems, and good lord is passing defense one of them. They are one of the absolute best teams on rushing defense, and the second-worst in passing. Cunningham has been capable in pass coverage over the past few years, and they desperately need someone like that. Their offense is good — coincidentally also better at rushing than passing — but not good enough to consistently overcome the deficiencies on defense.
That's where Cunningham comes in. He could help bolster the their crew and make their pass defense just a little scarier, so teams won't immediately start launching the ball into the air with impunity at kickoff. He could add a new dimension and make them a more complete team.
The Cowboys are finally getting their starting defensive ends and defensive tackles back on Sunday, which will help them tremendously, but they'll need more if they want to uplift their defense. It hasn't been a massively catastrophic issue yet, and still won't be for a little bit since Dallas faces just one team with a winning record in the last five weeks.
But once the playoffs roll around, they won't be facing teams like the Giants and Eagles. Their defense needs to be good enough to beat the likes of the Cardinals, Buccaneers, and Packers. That's where Cunningham can help. A little extra veteran competence can boost the entire defense, helping them overwhelm the bad teams and compete with the good ones.
The Broncos are on the edge right now. They're 6-6, and if they can win out or even win four out of five games, they have a real shot at claiming one of the wild-card spots. Their defense has been more than decent in 2021 (eighth in the NFL in total yards per game, 10th in passing and rushing yards), but they need more to overcome a thoroughly mediocre offense.
Enter Cunningham, who could be just what they need to give their playoff chances a boost. While he's having a down year, he was having it with the Texans, a team that doesn't seem terribly concerned about winning on either side of the ball. Getting him out of there might allow him to thrive and put up those great numbers again.
Los Angeles Chargers
Of all the teams on this list, the Chargers might need Cunningham the most. Their passing defense is top-10, but their rushing defense is one of the worst in the league. They've allowed the second-most rushing yards per game in the NFL, better than only the Texans, and the third-most rushing touchdowns.
Being so lopsided on defense turns them into an overall mediocre unit. Even just a slightly better rushing defense could improve things and remove a little pressure from the offense. For example, the Chargers had a 24-0 lead on the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 13, then allowed three TDs — two of them rushing — to let Cincy get to within shouting distance. Cunningham, who has historically been great at stopping the run, could help them prevent something like that from happening again.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams' linebacker situation in 2021 has been inconsistent, but Cunningham could fix that easily. There's been a big hole since they traded Kenny Young earlier this season, a hole that neither Troy Reeder or Ernest Jones have been able to fully fill. But if you add Cunningham to that mix, things could get a whole lot better.
"Better" is the key word. The Rams have been decent against the run this season, but they're in a division with the bulldozing Cardinals. While right now they have by far the highest win percentage of any team not currently leading an NFC division, they need it to stay that way in order to take one of the wild-card spots. If there's a chance for them to improve in their all-in season, they need to take it.