The 2016 season was a rough one for the Lions’ linebacker group. The only linebacker on the squad who was relatively consistent throughout the year was Tahir Whitehead, who recorded 132 total tackles. While he was good against the run he struggled at times in pass coverage. The rest of the Lions’ linebackers were plagued with injuries.
Detroit would benefit greatly by adding a young, athletic play-maker at linebacker. Enter Vanderbilt’s All-American Zach Cunningham. The 6’4” 230 pound redshirt junior had an impressive college career. In 2015 he logged 88 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, four and a half sacks and three forced fumbles. He had another productive year in 2016 where he has 125 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Most feel his best fit is as a 4-3 weak side linebacker.
There are a lot of things to like about Zach Cunningham. The most obvious is his athleticism. He has great speed for a linebacker. This really helps him in pass coverage. In man coverage Cunningham can run with most running backs and tight ends. In zone he has shown the ability to anticipate passes and break them up. The Lions struggled to find a linebacker who could consistently play pass coverage in 2016. Cunningham could step right in and help in that area.
Against the run Cunningham is also pretty solid however he isn’t perfect. His athleticism allows him to find his way into the backfield and bring down the running back before he gets going. He has great body control, which he uses to slip past blockers. Also he has a nose for the football and his speed allows him to make plays all over the field.
There are some concerns about Zach Cunningham. He often relies too heavily on arm-tackling which leads to him missing too many tackles. In college he was able to bring down ball-carriers a majority of the time but at the next level he will have to improve his technique.
Another area where he needs to improve is that he bites on play-action fakes too often. This essentially takes him out of the play.
Three-down linebackers are a valuable asset in the NFL. Since Cunningham is a three-down linebacker it will make it easier for teams to overlook his flaws. His athleticism will likely have teams looking at his potential more than his risks. At 21 it might be a bit of a reach for the Lions to take him in the first round but if they want him this is where they’d probably have to do it. However if Cunningham can turn in an impressive performance at the combine his stock could be on the rise.