2017 NFL Draft Scouting Report
Prospect:  Zach Cunningham


School:          Vanderbilt
Ht:  6'4"       Wt:  230
Eligibility:      JR
Uniform:       #41
Position:      ILB

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Cunningham was one of the top linebackers in the country during his time at Vanderbilt, garnering countless conference and national awards over the past two years. His tape was a little more inconsistent than I thought it would be, but the talent is clear when you watch him play. It is very seldom we see a play end without him somewhere in the vicinity of the ball carrier. He will have some areas he can improve in order to have success at the next level, and there will be questions about his natural position, but I don't doubt a team will be more than happy to get their hands on him at some point on day two.

I am going to start with the flaws on Cunningham because fixing them is what is going to make him a great professional. When he struggles, it is usually because of one of two factors. While he is surprisingly strong for his slender build, he still needs to add bulk and get stronger. The other is that he plays too high at times. While he made a ton of tackles in his career, it is mind-blowing to consider what that number would be if runners didn't break his arm tackles so easily. Overall, Cunningham is a very reliable tackler, but in the scenarios where he can't get his head across and must reach for the ball carrier, he is not nearly as effective. More often than not, it is because he tries to tackle them up high which is never a good idea, but even when does go lower, his power isn't there. Now most players aren't strong enough to consistently bring down players when forced to use arm tackles, but as I mentioned, this guy is surprisingly strong for his build. If he could get his weight up to around 245 or 250 (plays at 230), I think we would see him make even more tackles because of it. This will also help him taking on blocks which is the most polarizing area of this game. Against Florida, and at times against Georgia, he was aggressive and would stuff blockers in their gaps no matter how big they were. This immediately made me think he could be one of the best SAM linebacker prospects in this class. Still, when I watched him against Tennessee and Auburn, he was far less aggressive taking on blocks and even seemed to catch blockers at times. In those situations, he was far less efficient. Once again, he often played too high in those situations and the strength was nowhere to be found.

Now as to what position he will play, I believe he has the instincts and athleticism to play inside in a 4-3 or 3-4 system, but he can be a special SAM in a 4-3. The best snaps I have seen from him are when the ball is run to his side. On those plays when he is shaded over, he reads run quickly and aggressively attacks the blocker. He gets jarring contact and extends his arms, making it easy to disengage and flow to the ball. Having said that, there is another area that really impresses me. So many times, we see players run around traffic to get to the ball, but I rarely see Cunningham do it. His instincts and mental toughness are outstanding and fuel him as he runs through traffic at the proper angle to get to the ball carrier. There are even plays where he runs through contact to become part of the tackle. This is a trait that would make him suitable to play in the middle, and he does have the speed to play sideline to sideline. Either way, he is a physical player and a menace against the run. The added bulk will only make him better in that area.

Now while getting bigger should help him against the run, I think it will hurt him against the pass. Just looking at him, you would think he was an edge-rushing linebacker, but that was seldom the case at Vanderbilt. Now, that could change with coaching, but without it, I am not sure where he has a role on passing downs. At his current weight, I think he is capable of covering tight ends and some backs, and he can also have an impact dropping into zone coverage. With the necessary weight, I think that isn't the case, and we may seem him less frequently in coverage. Of course, less time on passing downs will result in more time on special teams where a player like him is sure to have success.

Because there is a considerable margin between the weight he played at in college and what he should play at in the NFL, it could hurt his stock a bit. I think he has the talent to go in the second round, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit if he falls to the third. He is a mature kid, with high character and work ethic. He is not only a player you expect to be a captain at the next level but also set a quality example of how to dedicate yourself to the community off the field. He is honestly someone I would bet is a future Walter Payton Man of the Year candidate, and there are teams that will value him higher because of that.

Compares to (Current NFL Player): Akeem Ayers (Indianapolis Colts)

- Good size and length
- Instinctual player that runs through the traffic and takes proper angles
- Jars blockers with strong contact
- High character and future captain
- Ability to help on special teams

- Needs to add bulk
- Plays high at times
- Is he a Sam or Mike in a 4-3? Is he a Mike in a 3-4
- Not sure where he fits on passing downs

Austin Smith
February 27, 2017

Video Courtesy of Harris Highlights

1)   Rexrode: Zach Cunningham, best in the SEC? Nah, better than that   - The Tennessean
2)   The secret's out: Vandy's Zach Cunningham emerges as a national star   - ESPN.com
3)   Zach Cunningham a hometown hero before Vanderbilt star    - The Tennessean

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