Scouting Report: Could Zach Cunningham (LB, Vanderbilt) Fortify Miami’s Defense?

Background:

Zach Cunningham was a highly productive LB at Vanderbilt.  At 6’4 and 230 lbs, the 22-year-old redshirt Junior recorded 125 tackles including 16.5 tackles for loss, 2 fumbles forced, and 3 passes defended.  A former RB in high school, Cunningham has a knack for getting to the ball carrier.  Cunningham finished his last season at Vanderbilt as a the program’s first unanimous 1st team All American.  He was also voted 1st team All SEC and nominated for both the Chuck Bednarik and Butkus awards.  He will now look to continue to add to his accolades as a first round NFL pick.

Positives:

Cunningham is a highly active LB with a swiss-army-knife skill set.  He is tall and long with noticeable lateral and downhill speed.  He is the definition of a guy that “flashes” on tape.  In the play below, Cunningham shows off his impressive athleticism.  He makes a mistake by taking on a blocker early on a quick throw, but recovers instantly by punching off the block, flipping his hips and using his straight line speed to help stop the pass catcher for a short gain.

Cunningham - Athlete..gif

He also has a unique combination of upper-body strength and long arms that allow him to hold off and shed blockers with ease. In the clip below, you’ll see how Cunningham not only engages with his blocker, but also continues to drive his lower body and move his feet.  This allows him to use his upper body strength to displace the blocker, shed the block, and create a lane to make a play on the ball carrier.  

Cunningham - Fight through blocks.gif
Cunningham also stands out thanks to his speed and instinctiveness.  Also, his ability to play through “trash.”  In the play below, Cunningham reads the run perfectly, beating the blocker to his spot and showing up to the hole just as the RB gets there.  This type of cerebral play recognition is part of the reason why Cunningham ended up with 16.5 tackles for loss in 2016.  

Cunningham 1.gif

Cunningham is also one of the best LBs in the class when it comes to pass coverage.  He has long strides and fluid hips to cover backs and TEs in man coverage, and he also has great awareness in zone coverage as seen below.  In an ever-growing pass-happy league, where defenses are playing 60% nickel coverage, adding another player with cover skills is vital.  

Cunningham - Zone Coverage.gif
If nothing else, Cunningham has a track record of improving every year and should continue to push his ceiling as he grows into a role in the NFL.  He arrived at Vanderbilt as a skinny 200-pound redshirt freshmen, and he left as arguably the best LB in the program’s history.  

Negatives:

The biggest knock on Cunningham throughout his college career was his tackling. Cunningham missed a tackle in every 9.7 attempts mainly due to poor angles and relying on his upper body strength to make arm tackles instead of wrapping up his man and running through him.  On the missed tackle below, Cunningham does a good job of breaking down and squaring up to the ball carrier, but at the last moment he stops his feet and relies on his long arms to reach for the tackle instead of driving through the ball carrier.  The runner angles his body to shed the arm tackle and picks up the extra yards.  

Cunningham - Missed..gif

If the Dolphins are looking to add Cunningham to fill their middle LB position, they will need to see him continue to add significant bulk.  At 230lbs soaking wet, Cunningham will need to fill out his frame to match up with the size of professionals at the next level. Ideally, a prototypical 4-3 MLB in new defensive coordinator Matt Burke’s system would be in the 240lb range.  

In addition to tackling concerns, a significant unknown with Cunningham is his pass rushing skill set.  Out of 13 games this year, he was rarely asked to rush the passer and didn’t record a single sack.  When he was asked to blitz, he didn’t display any pass rushing technique but instead chose to use only his speed to get to the passer.  Dolphins DC Matt Burke has said that he wants an attacking defense.  If that’s the case, he will have to dive deep into film and wait until Vanderbilt’s pro day to address Cunningham’s pass rushing ability.

How He Fits With the Dolphins:

Cunningham has the physical mindset of a middle linebacker with the play recognition and pursuit of a free safety.  Defense coordinators will love his athletic frame and do-it-all mentality.  I think the best spot for Cunningham with the Dolphins will be as a 4-3 weakside LB.  At WLB, Cunningham can best utilize his coverage skills in space and still use his speed to make plays from the backside.  He checks all the boxes as WLB, but the Dolphins will have to make some big decisions with current weakside LBs Jelani Jenkins and Neville Hewitt in order to make room for one more.  

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