Opinion: Whoa, Tennessee Titans got Zach Cunningham from Houston? That was easy. Too easy?

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I’m struggling to stay skeptical about this Zach Cunningham addition for the Tennessee Titans. Deep down, I know caution is the appropriate response.

I know that if something seems too good to be true in the NFL, that’s surely the case.

There's good reason why one of the NFL’s most productive — and most durable — inside linebackers was just sitting there and the Titans had to do nothing more than raise their hand to grab him. And so a former Vanderbilt star is headed back to a hero’s welcome at a time that simply couldn't be more perfect for the championship-hungry Titans.

That good reason? We’ll get to that. We have to get to that.

Can I say first that I adore this addition for the Titans? How could you not? For years now, I’ve watched them play the Houston Texans and had my eyes drawn to No. 41. Because Cunningham was always near the football.

He made 164 tackles last season (106 of them solo), leading the league. Since being drafted in 2017, Cunningham has 570 tackles. That’s a staggering total. Jayon Brown has 377 in the same timeframe. Since 2018, Rashaan Evans has 297.

The Titans didn’t just bolster depth for this season. They got a lot better, perhaps for many seasons. They upgraded significantly at inside linebacker, and if things fall right, they might’ve just added a cornerstone defensive player for years. Cunningham has been that good. He just turned 27, and you have to think he’s over the moon about being back in Music City, that he'll want to excel and stay with a contender.

The easy availability of Houston Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham has left some league observers skeptical.
The easy availability of Houston Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham has left some league observers skeptical.

Cunningham has to know he could have landed anywhere. After the lowly Texans dropped him, there wasn’t much financial risk to picking him up. His salary can get costly if a team chooses to keep him on his current deal, but if not, that team could cut him loose in the short term without much fuss.

Nonetheless, more than half the teams in the NFL passed on Cunningham, letting him fall to the Titans, who are 8-4 with a lower waiver priority.

I say once again – with feeling:

What’s the catch?

There is one, and oddly enough, it has to do with another former Vanderbilt player. Clearly, Cunningham didn’t see eye to eye with first-year Texans coach David Culley. The linebacker, a good player on a very bad team, has been disciplined this season for rules violations – once for reportedly missing an in-house COVID-19 test.

“I've got a locker room full of players in there that understand what our standard is,” Culley told reporters in Houston this week. “We preach it all the time. … The rules got to the point he didn't follow what we needed to get done, and I made the move.”

That’s a red flag, folks. I'm sorry, but NFL franchises – even those being tempted to tank for a high draft pick – aren’t in the habit of giving away their best young players for nothing other than a principle. The mere implication that Cunningham’s behavior gave Culley no choice was enough to scare off other teams.

But not the Titans.

To be fair, I don’t see the Titans as taking on enormous risk here, but when you’re in a crowded AFC playoff race where each play could swing your season, there are no unimportant decisions. This one will matter, be it good or bad.

So let’s remove all emotion and Vanderbilt nostalgia: The Titans need a player of Cunningham’s ability in the middle of their defense, but they don’t need a problem.

The Titans haven’t always added or drafted the right players, but locker-room culture has been a consistent strength under Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel. When it comes to character fits, the Titans aren’t wrong very often. And if they are, it gets corrected. The bad apples don’t stick around long.

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With Cunningham, there’s perhaps comfort in that Vrabel, who coached him as a rookie in Houston, knows him so well.

But Vrabel knew Jadeveon Clowney well, too, and that ex-Texans star had even more talent. The spotlight is much different when it’s such a prominent player, and the Titans' Clowney year was an expensive ordeal that ultimately reflected poorly on their decision-making while failing to help last season's defense be anything more than terrible.

Last thing you'd want is a repeat, especially with how much the defense has improved.

With Cunningham, though, you can’t help but wonder if he was an example of a player who simply didn’t want to stick around a franchise still in the early stages of a long, painful rebuild. There are better ways to go about that, I suppose, but if Cunningham badly wanted out of Houston – well, it worked.

"Sometimes divorce is a good thing," Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said in Houston this week. "It's good for both parties."

I really do think this is good for the Titans, too.

We'll see if it proves to be.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Zach Cunningham to the Tennessee Titans? That was easy. Too easy?