Throughout the offseason, we’ll be profiling players who may end up in Denver when all is said and done with the 2017 NFL Draft. The Broncos clearly have plenty of holes to fill before they get back to Super-Bowl form and we’ll be examining a long list of players they may choose to help the franchise do just that.
It’s not an easy task to win an individual award within the SEC. With football programs such as Alabama, Florida, Louisiana State and Texas A&M on the docket every year, players from the not-as-dominant schools typically get drastically overlooked. Over the past few years, however, one player that has defied these odds is Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham.
As a first-team All-SEC player in 2015 and 2016, as well as a first-team All-American in 2016, Cunningham established himself as one of the nations best collegiate linebackers for his ability to fill the stat sheet and make plays. Now, entering the 2017 NFL draft, Cunningham has not only carried this designation over to the draft board, he has earned a first-round draft grade by most scouts.
The two greatest strengths of Cunningham—that he proved time and time again in college—was his ability to get to the ball and make plays on the ball. Cunningham diagnoses plays almost immediately, giving him an upper hand to get to the ball carrier even before blockers at times. When he isn’t able to beat a blocker to the ball, he does a great job contorting his body to avoid would-be-blockers.
“I think I’m a lengthy player. A pretty fast player. Speed. A sideline to sideline player. And that’s something that has helped me. That and my instincts has helped me to be a good player,” Cunningham said of himself at the combine. “I feel like I have very good instincts when I’m playing on the field.”
Once Cunningham gets to the ballcarrier, he goes after the ball. Instead of tackling the player, he routinely tackles the ball, which caused a lot of turnovers in college. Additionally, he is able to use his elite athleticism and lengthy size to guard tight ends and running backs anywhere on the field.
“I feel I am one of the better linebackers as far as pass coverage goes,” he said.
At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Cunningham has the frame to be a monstrous linebacker at the next level. However, as with many players transitioning from college to the NFL, he needs to bulk up and add strength, specifically in his lower half. As he currently stands, Cunningham lacks the strength in the lower half of his body to go up against NFL sized running backs, let alone offensive lineman.
“That’s definitely been a knock that I’ve heard about me. Being able to have that strength, playing at the linebacker position,” he said. “I’ve been around 225-230. So most of the questions I’ve gotten is would I be able to put on say 10 more pounds and play at that weight. Would I be OK with that. And that’s something I would definitely be open to. I think with my frame that’s something I would be able to do.”
In college, this lack of lower body strength hurt his game by forcing him to lose balance when attempting to tackle and made him bring down opposing players in what looked more like a wrestling move than a tackle. If he tries to do this in the NFL, he will be much less successful than he was in college. Also, while he was fine against the run in college, he will be bullied at the next level if he doesn’t build strength in his legs.
While the most important trait for a linebacker is tackling, Cunningham needs to have additional strength in order to do this effectively at the next level.
How he fits in Denver
On paper, Cunningham is best suited as a weak side linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Unfortunately, the Broncos run a 3-4 defense and already have incredible young players at outside linebacker: Von Miller, Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett. However, as with all great players, Denver was able to land Cunningham they would find a way to get him on the field. If he were able to add additional strength and bulk up, he would be inserted as an inside linebacker on Denver’s defense.
Cunningham would immediately help cover tight ends and running backs, but he wouldn’t be an immediate answer in helping the Broncos plug the middle of the field against the run. With plenty of upside, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to say Cunningham could end up in Denver, even though he wouldn’t be a natural fit immediately.