Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham is a play-maker. He flies around the field, reads the ball carrier, and is an exceptionally gifted downfield runner. For the Denver Broncos, drafting Cunningham would mean filling a need the team has had since they lost Danny Trevethan to free agency following their Super Bowl 50 win. At least, that’s what I thought when I first started studying the 22-year-old prospect.
The more I watched, the more things changed.
Cunningham may look the part, but there are several issues in his game that kept me from embracing him the way other draftniks and many others in the scouting community have. He’s a gifted athlete. But, when it comes to the inside linebacker position, I always look to to find power where it’s possible. I want an enforcer roaming the middle of my defense. I believe Broncos general manager John Elway feels the same way.
With that in mind, here’s my full scouting report on Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham.
40-yard-dash: 4.67 sec
Vertical Jump: 35 inches
Date of Birth: December 12, 1994 (22)
When I teach kids how to play defense, I teach a very fundamental retort over and over again. “Read and react,” I’ll shout at them. “See the ball, make the play.” That’s exactly what Zach Cunningham does well. He reads plays and reacts to the ball better than almost any linebacker in this class. He processes information quickly and moves downfield with vigor on every single play.
Furthermore, Cunningham is the ultimate fly-around linebacker. The kid looks to make plays constantly.
Additionally, he has the athleticism to handle man-to-man coverage responsibilities against running backs and tight ends. That’s something the Broncos desperately missed last season, especially early in the year against dynamic threats like Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman and DeVonta Freeman.
Cunningham is listed at a near-perfect 6’3” 234-pounds. However, I highly doubt he plays at that weight. He’s thin up top and has an angular build, which leads directly into his biggest problem.
He’s a poor tackler. Cunningham take poor angles on his tackles and comes in high regularly, which makes things tough on him when he has to bring down powerful ball carriers.
Additionally, he lacks the power necessary to be a dominant force in the middle of the field. He can fit in a 3-4 as a speedy inside backer, but I have a hard time seeing him becoming the powerful interior defender teams look for in the middle of 4-3 alignments.
WHERE HE SHOULD GO
I see Cunningham’s best value coming between the end of the first and start of the second round. If a team is interested in him as a starting interior linebacker, I could see a team being willing to take him in the top 20. I expect him to be on the board when the Denver Broncos make their pick at No. 20
WHERE HE WILL GO
He’ll fall somewhere between 20-40. Teams love his athleticism and effort. However, he’s a tough fit at the next level unless he’s willing to commit to playing outside at the next level.
The New England Patriots reportedly have interest and head coach Bill Belichick attended Vanderbilt’s Pro Day specifically to watch the intriguing prospect.
CAN HE BE A BRONCO?
Yes, but I doubt he will be. The Broncos need either a dominant and powerful interior force in the middle. Cunningham would solve Denver’s issues covering tight ends and running backs out of the backfield, but there’s a lot more to playing that position.
I wouldn’t hate the pick if Denver grabbed Cunningham at No. 20, but there are better options in that spot.
Zach Cunningham is an aggressive, athletic linebacker who reads the field well and reacts to the ball carrier with speed and efficiency. He’s an aggressive play-maker capable of both playing the run and covering running backs and tight ends out of the backfield.
However, he’s ultimately a finesse player. His lanky frame isn’t ideal to man the interior of a defense and his high tackling will allow the NFL’s elite ball-carriers to slide off of him. He’ll need top-notch coaching at the next level to correct these issues and may wind up being a better fit as an outside linebacker at the next level.