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Possible Pick: Vanderbilt LB Is This Year’s Most Underrated Talent
(Editor’s Note: With less than one month until the start of the 2017 NFL Draft on April 27, the staff of DallasCowboys.com intends to preview the landscape of possible Cowboys draft picks – from the first round to the last. Today’s featured player is Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham.)
Name: Zach Cunningham
Honors: Cunningham was first-team All-SEC in his final two seasons at Vanderbilt, as he led the Commodores in both campaigns. In 2016, he also earned some first-team All-America votes, given that he finished the season with 125 tackles and an impressive 16.5 tackles for loss. He did all that for a Vanderbilt team that finished just 6-7, with just a 3-5 record in SEC play.
Key Stat: Vanderbilt has plenty of history producing NFL draft picks, but not many of them are as highly-touted as Cunningham. The Commodores haven’t had a first-round pick since 2008, when offensive tackle Chris Williams went No. 14 overall. If Cunningham can beat out Jordan Matthews, who Philadelphia drafted 42nd overall in 2014, he would become the highest-drafted Vanderbilt player in almost a decade.
Where He’s Projected: Which brings us to Cunningham’s draft grade – which likely depends on how much you value his skillset. He is one of the best pure linebackers in this draft class, along with Alabama’s Reuben Foster. But off-the-ball linebackers aren’t typically drafted as high as they used to be. It’s conceivable he could fall to the Cowboys at pick No. 60, but it seems much more likely that he’ll be selected in the first 50 picks of the draft. If he falls to a team with the right scheme and the right need, it’s even possible he could be a first-round selection.
How He Helps The Cowboys: Cunningham could be an instant starter at any of the three linebacker positions, but where he’d play for the Cowboys would probably depend on a number of variables. If Jaylon Smith is healthy and ready to play, you’d likely see Cunningham as your starter on the strong side – and he has the talent to play a far larger role than the Cowboys demand from their current Sam linebackers. If Smith isn’t able to go, Cunningham could step into the starting middle linebacker spot, next to Sean Lee, as well. Regardless, he’d be a surefire talent boost to the linebacker corps – at a variety of positions.
Scout’s Take: Cunningham has outstanding playing speed for a tall player. He can really cover some ground when he runs -- downhill player. When he reads it, he’s gone. He plays with a burst and he shows range. This is a very good reactionary athlete who plays with lateral quickness. He can really change direction. He works through the trash to the get to the ball, and he does a nice job of getting rid of the blocker. He uses his hands well and he gets in a position to finish. He has some snap in his hands. This is an aggressive player. He can get outside to make the tackle. He handles the low block well, and he keeps his balance. He can play in coverage, and that is an important point. His speed allows him to keep up in route. He’s difficult to get away from. I honestly don’t see him coming off the field on the next level – regardless of where he plays. This is a player that has been flying under the radar during this draft season but has the potential to be a force with the team that selects him.
- Bryan Broaddus Read