Draft Journal: Dolphins Could Look Towards Versatile LB Zach Cunningham in 2017 Draft

Against the San Diego Chargers, Miami managed to slow down running back Melvin Gordon but was once again destroyed by the opposing tight ends. Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry combined for 6 catches, 74 yards and 2 touchdowns. Without Reshad Jones on the field, the Dolphins simply have no way of slowing down the tight end position, and the linebackers are mostly to blame. While Kiko Alonso has been a revelation so far in Miami, the rest of the position group is devoid of anything remotely close to high-end talent. Thus, they could choose to target one of the fastest rising defensive prospects in all of college football as a potential solution to their pass coverage woes…

Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt (LB)

Due to the failures of the Vanderbilt Commodores as a team, the casual college football fan likely won’t know the name “Zach Cunningham.” However, as the 2017 NFL Draft quickly approaches, the Vanderbilt standout is making himself a household name.

A former four-star recruit, the 257th ranked player in the 2013 class ultimately chose Vanderbilt over Auburn and Oregon. He broke out as one of the SEC’s top linebackers in 2015 and was lauded for his potential to be a very early draft pick after this season. ProFootballFocus rewarded Cunningham with positive grades for his run defense, pass coverage and pass rush and, overall, he was the 16th rated linebacker in the nation as a redshirt sophomore.

Naturally, he has been even better this year. At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Cunningham is an absolute missile on the football field. He’s aggressive, fast and physical in attacking blockers as well as ball carriers. If there is an open lane to the football, he is going to exploit it.

cunningham-tackle

In a conference filled with dominant defenders, Cunningham is one of its most underrated. In fact, he remains one of the more underrated defenders in the entire country. While linebackers such as Reuben Foster (Alabama), Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State) and Jarrad Davis (Florida) benefit from their schools consistently receiving national exposure. Cunningham hasn’t had the same luxury.

Regardless, Cunningham has the potential to be an unbelievable leader on an NFL defense. He currently ranks fifth in the nation in combined tackles, representative of his ability to make plays from sideline to sideline. Over the course of his college career, he has proven his worth in coverage (with 6 passes defended) and with his pass rush (with 6 sacks.) This pass breakup helped conserve Vanderbilt’s lead in a victory against Georgia earlier in the season:

cunningham-pd

The main criticism about Cunningham’s game at this point is his inconsistent tackling technique. At some points, he is so aggressive in his pursuit that he fails to finish the play. However, I believe this has more to do with the fact that he is asked to do so much for the Commodore defense, and I firmly expect him to improve upon his technique early on in his professional career under the guidance of Vance Joseph.

Miami needs to rebuild its linebacker corps as soon as possible. The linebackers’ inability to cover receivers and tight ends is arguably the entire team’s biggest weakness at this point in the season. Cunningham could immediately step in and improve the position group in this regard. Additionally, Cunningham would take pressure off of Reshad Jones when he returns from injury next season. Jones is often asked to fill a safety-linebacker hybrid role of sorts, and adding Cunningham would allow him to spend more time at his traditional position.

If Cunningham continues his high level of play, expect him to be firmly in the first-round conversation.

Others to Keep an Eye On:

Desmond King, Iowa (CB)

Miami could potentially pursue a full-blown youth movement in their defensive backfield heading into 2017-2018. It is too early to tell if Xavien Howard is a long-term solution at cornerback, especially considering the injuries that he has endured thus far in his rookie season. Byron Maxwell has been average at best, which is at least better than he was last year with the Eagles. Tony Lippett was one of the stars of the win against San Diego, but he is still extremely inconsistent most of the time. Bobby McCain, on the other hand, was a disaster against the Chargers and shouldn’t be considered part of Miami’s future.

Desmond King could be the next piece of the puzzle as Joseph attempts to mold his ideal secondary. While I discussed Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson in an earlier addition of our draft journal, King could be the perfect fit for Joseph’s zone-heavy defensive scheme.

Although he won’t be the most athletically impressive cornerback at this year’s NFL Combine, I have a feeling teams are going to fall in love with what they see from him on tape. He has superb instincts in coverage, as he excels at reading the eyes of the quarterback and predicting the route of the receiver. Take his pick-six against Purdue as a perfect example:

king-int

Playing zone coverage, King quickly identifies the out route by the receiver, steps in front of him and intercepts the pass along the sideline, taking it back 41 yards for the score. What is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his game is the fact that he combines his high football IQ with superb ball skills. He returns punts for his team and ranked second in the nation with 8 interceptions in 2015.

King is also more than willing to partake in run support. He has been consistently praised for his physicality and tackling ability on the outside, and that likely makes him an attractive prospect for a defense that needs all the help it can get stopping the run. The play below went viral prior to the start of the college football season, as King annihilated a teammate in practice as they attempted to get to the edge:

king-practice

(Dave Revsine – Big Ten Network)

He is a flat-out competitor, and the type of player Joseph sorely lacks at the cornerback position. He doesn’t have the best straight-line speed, which could ultimately hurt his draft stock, but he plays faster on tape and more than makes up for it with his ball skills, physicality and instincts.

Dan Feeney, Indiana (OG)

With the way Jay Ajayi, Ryan Tannehill and Cameron Wake have been playing, linebacker, cornerback and offensive line remain the three most likely positions to be addressed by Miami early on in the draft. Although the offensive line has played a vital part in the success of Ajayi and Tannehill during the current win streak, depth at the position remains a considerable question mark as does right guard and right tackle. Bushrod has been more than capable of manning the right guard position, but can’t be trusted as a long-term solution considering his age. Ja’Wuan James has seemingly been testing the patience of the coaching staff, as he continues to struggle with penalties and consistency.

Either position could plausibly be addressed in the draft as Gase looks to continue to build his optimal offensive depth chart; but considering Bushrod was originally brought in to be a depth piece and veteran presence, right guard would seem to be the more pressing need. That is why Dan Feeney could come into play for Miami.

The four-year starter at Indiana is considered to have played a major part in the past successes of former Hoosier running backs Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard. He gets off the line quickly in both run and pass protection and has excelled in both down-block and pulling. In the play below, Feeney pulls to lead the way for his running back:

feeney-pull

Feeney, number 67, ultimately creates the hole by himself as he engages with the defender and legally forces him to the ground. For an offense that seems primed to focus on running the football for the foreseeable future, an offensive lineman of Feeney’s run-blocking prowess could be exactly what Gase is looking for.

Feeney’s footwork and athleticism additionally allow him to stay in front of pass rushers without having to hold, as well as make blocks in the screen game. Take the play below for example:

feeney-screen

While he ultimately doesn’t have anyone to block, Feeney’s capabilities are quite evident. He perfectly disengages from the defender and shows the speed to at least remain close to the running back on the play. Had the runner cut inside, Feeney could have set the block that he seemed to so desperately crave.

Despite the fact that I would be slightly surprised to see the Dolphins choose an offensive lineman in the first round for the second year in a row, Gase is an offensive minded head coach and could prefer to sure up his weakest position on that side of the ball. Feeney could easily be considered the best guard in the country, and if he falls into Miami’s range, no one should blame them for pulling the trigger.

 

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