The Houston Texans picked Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham with the 57th overall selection in the 2017 NFL draft on Friday.
Cunningham is a prospect with an impressive set of tools. There are some lingering questions that must be answered, though, if he’s going to develop into a top-tier linebacker at the NFL level.
The 22-year-old Alabama native is versatile, showing during his time with the Commodores he could fit as an inside or outside linebacker moving forward. But there are concerns about whether he possesses the power to thrive, especially if he plays in the middle.
It wasn’t as much of an issue in college. He used his other skills—he’s lightning quick off the snap and reads the play extremely well—to put up big numbers. He racked up 213 total tackles and 4.5 sacks across his final two seasons at Vandy, and he also made his presence felt on special teams.
His raw strength will be more crucial in the NFL when it comes to shedding blocks and taking down bigger, more physical running backs.
Kent Lee Platte from Pride of Detroit showcased how his testing numbers stacked up:
That said, it’s important not to disregard his highly impressive game tape because he’ll probably need to spend some extra time in the weight room early in his pro career. We’re still talking about a linebacker who earned first-team All-American honors in 2016.
PFF College Football passed along high praise from Josh Liskiewitz:
Another thing to keep in mind is his awareness. As mentioned, he does a great job dissecting a play and beating his blocker to the point of attack. It’s a trait that usually takes a player years to develop. He’ll enter the league already at a veteran level.
Cunningham gave credit to Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason and inside linebackers coach Chris Marve for helping him in that area, per Chris Low of ESPN.com.
“I watch film differently than I used to and have a lot more knowledge of the game and what offenses are trying to do,” Cunningham said in October. “They’ve helped bring more knowledge to me, and that’s helped me play even faster and pick up quicker on what teams are trying to do.”
So, while the concerns about his strength are legitimate, everything else about his game points toward his becoming a stalwart, productive member of the defense. Patience will be necessary, however, as he settles in at a permanent positional home and adds a little more bulk to his frame.
Look for Cunningham to slot in as a backup for Benardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing in his first season with the Texans before gradually expanding his role.
That said, this is the type of pick that’s likely going to take a couple of years to fully evaluate. He’s not as much of a ready-made prospect as some other defenders in the class, though his upside could allow him to become one of the most impactful prospects from the group.