Zach Cunningham – The best Vanderbilt prospect since Jay Cutler

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 17: Dedrick Mills #26 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets eludes the tackle attempt by Zach Cunningham #41 of the Vanderbilt Commodores to score a touchdown at Bobby Dodd Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The 2016 NFL Draft was not a source of pride for the Commodores. Vanderbilt had one player selected, Stephen Weatherly, an OLB the Minnesota Vikings made the 227th pick in the 7th round. Believe it or not, this was actually a step up from the 2015 NFL Draft when Vanderbilt didn’t have a single player drafted. However, the 2017 NFL Draft should be different for the Commodores, and one man is at the center of it all – LB Zach Cunningham.

Since Jay Cutler went 11th overall in 2006, the Commodores have only had one player drafted in the first round, and that was OT Chris Williams who the Chicago Bears selected 14th overall in 2008. Williams went on to play for three different teams in just six years, and his NFL career ended after a failed physical with the Bills in 2014. Now that’s not to say Vanderbilt hasn’t been able to find any NFL success; both WR Jordan Matthews & CB Casey Heyward are in the middle of very successful NFL careers, but both players were Day 2 picks, and came into the league with some question marks surrounding their potential.

That brings us back to Cunningham. The Pinson, Alabama-native leaves Vanderbilt after three seasons and a whopping 256 tackles to his name, including 125 in his final season. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cunningham has manned a starting role at the ILB position for the Commodores over the past two seasons, where he’s been able to really improve his instincts. Some think Cunningham will be better suited as an OLB in a 4-3 at the next level, but the experience at ILB has been valuable to the overall development of Cunningham and how he reads the game.

All scouts and NFL teams alike covet Linebackers who can play three downs in today’s pass-happy, up-tempo game. As Tight Ends have become more athletic, defenses have put an emphasis on having LBs that can cover them in obvious passing situations, so they don’t have to make constant substitutions based on the packages. Deone Bucannon in Arizona is a prime example of teams sticking smaller, more athletic players at the LB position with immense success. Other teams are also following suit – the Falcons & Redskins had similar success this season with rookies Deion Jones & Su’a Cravens. Cunningham fits the mold at just 230 pounds, and possesses the sideline-to-sideline speed and coverage capabilities which make him an intriguing prospect as a three-down player in the NFL.

Here, Cunningham is in man-to-man coverage in the red zone with Tennessee TE Ethan Wolf. He breaks on the ball and makes an excellent, TD-saving pass breakup. Cunningham shows good reactionary skills in coverage here, and the ability to anticipate the throw just in time to make a play.

Here’s a closer look at that pass breakup.

This may be one of my favorite tackles from the 2016 collegiate season. Tennessee WR Josh Malone takes a quick pass and looks like he’s about to score from 30 yards out when Cunningham somehow catches him from behind and makes the diving stop at the one-yard line. Look at how much ground is covered by Cunningham from the start of the play to when he makes the stop. Cunningham really had no business keeping Malone out of the end zone here. Cunningham showcased the traits you can’t teach — effort in pursuit, and flat out hustle.

Now that you’ve seen Cunningham’s speed and coverage abilities, let’s take a look at his more traditional LB skills, such as simply disengaging and making opportune tackles. On this play in particular, Vanderbilt is leading Georgia by one with under a minute to play. Georgia is driving towards FG range when it’s faced with a 4th & 1 from the Vanderbilt 40. Cunningham shows up in a big way here, reading the play call while weaving his way through traffic to make the game-clinching stop. This is a big-time play from a big-time player.

If there’s one thing Cunningham needs to work on, it’s being a more secure, wrap-up tackler. Give Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara credit for making a play here, but Cunningham was in position to make the stop. Whiffs like that won’t cut it at the next level.

It’s been a rough few years for Vanderbilt during the NFL Draft. The program hasn’t developed a first-round pick in nearly 10 years. That will certainly change on April 27th, 2017 when Cunningham (and Vanderbilt) hears his name called during the first round. I personally wouldn’t hesitate to make Cunningham a top-10 pick, but I’m not sure he’ll go that high. I would, however, be shocked if Cunningham doesn’t hear his name in the first 25 selections.