Texans release LB Zach Cunningham, should the Lions have interest?

One of the NFL’s leading tacklers over the last few seasons has hit the market. The Houston Texans released veteran linebacker Zach Cunningham on Wednesday after being unable to resolve some recent internal disciplinary issues with Cunningham.

Because the release comes after the NFL’s trade deadline, Cunningham is subject to waiver claims. The Detroit Lions own the top spot in the waiver claim order by virtue of their league-worst 1-10-1 record. The Texans are 2-10.

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Should the Lions have interest in Cunningham?

This is a difficult one, because there are some layers that say “of course” but others that indicate the Lions would be better off passing.

The pros on Cunningham:

  • Led the NFL in solo tackles over the 2019-2020 seasons with 205

  • Familiarity playing off-ball LB in a 3-4 scheme similar to the one the Lions run, and he’s posted those tackle numbers behind some generally ineffective defensive lines to protect him

  • Still just 27 years old and no concerning injury history

  • Under contract through 2023

Alas, there are some very serious drawbacks…

  • Despite being speedy, he’s been terrible in pass coverage. Cunningham has ranked in the bottom five (among LBs with at least 50 percent snaps played) in each of the last two seasons per Pro Football Focus. And the eye test very much validates the lowly status.

  • Utter lack of impact plays. Cunningham has one INT, six sacks and five forced fumbles in five NFL seasons. Lions LB Alex Anzalone has more PDs in the last four games (5) than Cunningham has in his last 24 games played.

  • Due an average salary of $14 million in each of the next three seasons on a four-year, $58 million contract extension signed in 2020. The Texans did eat over $12 million in dead cap room in 2022 to dump Cunningham.


Then there are the disciplinary issues. Cunningham was benched in Houston’s Week 2 loss to Cleveland for not conforming to the structure of the defense. He was inactive in the Texans’ Week 13 loss due to being late for a COVID-19 test.


Cunningham can be a useful addition for Detroit, but absolutely not at his current contract. His effort level has noticeably declined as the losses have piled up in Houston, and his lack of impact plays render him horribly overcompensated.

If he clears waivers, the Lions should at least offer a veteran minimum contract for the remainder of the 2021 season to see if he might click with a different coaching staff. Any longer-term commitment to Cunningham would be a massive mistake.