2017 NFL Draft Player Profile: Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham

We’re back again breaking down prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft, set to kick off on April 27th through the 29th. Our goal this season is to write reports on at least 150 players and hopefully, as many as 200. It will, of course, have a focus on Pittsburgh Steelers’ wants and needs but we will look big-picture too at the best players in this year’s draft.

If there’s a player you would like us to breakdown, let us know in the comments below.

Zach Cunningham / LB Vanderbilt 6’4 230 lbs #41

The Good:

– Does not struggle to fight off blocks
– Diagnoses plays quickly due to great instincts
– Can cover a large amount of space in a short time
– Has the speed to cover running backs out of the backfield
– Breaks rather quickly on throws
– Good zone depth awareness

The Bad:

– Size leads to sloppy tackling technique at times
– Needs to lower pad level when tackling
– Bad habit of arm tackling
– Non-factor in pass rushing


– 2016: 125 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss
– Led SEC in tackles last season
– Career high 19 total tackles against Georgia this season
– 2016 Unanimous All America Selection by AFCA
– First unanimous first team All America Selection in Vanderbilt History

Tape Breakdown:

Standing at a slender 6’4 and weighing just 230 pounds, Vanderbilt inside linebacker Zach Cunningham has the ability to fly all the over the field. Not literally of course, but with his great instincts and athleticism, Cunningham comes as close to flying as one can get.

Watch how Cunningham blows up this late fourth down play against Georgia earlier this season, a game in which Cunningham racked up 19 total tackles.

Facing 4th and 1 with the game on the line, Georgia is in 21 formation with their full back and tight end in to seal the edge.  In most cases, a play call like this should be expected to pick up at least a yard, but with Cunningham on defense, nothing is a guarantee. The Vanderbilt linebacker is impressively able to side step the pile and still have time to wrap up the back in the backfield. Not a simple task for any linebacker but one that Cunningham makes time and time again.

Driving Cunningham off the line is not a suitable solution either, as the linebacker is able to fight off blocks to limit the opposing back for little to no gain on plenty of occasions. By diagnosing plays immediately after the snap and knowing where he needs to be, Cunningham is a master calculator on the field.

Watch Cunningham impressively fight off a block here against the Florida Gators. The Gators send right guard Tyler Jordan to seal Cunningham off at the second level, giving the Gators’ back what looks to be space down the right sideline. Cunningham though fights off Jordan and launches to stop the back at the line, single-handedly stopping the potential for a big play.

Cunningham’s instincts and awareness are not just limited to run defense either. The Vanderbilt linebacker is effective at dropping into zone coverage, and though Cunningham has no interceptions to his name, he has been close quite a few times.

Here is Cunningham split out wide against the 6’6 Tennessee tight end Ethan Wolf. As Cunningham moves slightly to his right, Wolf hooks right at the goal line. With the ball now on its way to Wolf’s hands, Cunningham breaks on the ball, just falling short of what should be an interception.

Due to his intangibles and size, Cunningham is not a player that will require substitution on passing downs. Whether it be to drop into a middle zone, cover the flat against a running back or even man to man against other tight ends, Cunningham fits the bill of a three-down linebacker.

For all the great parts of Cunningham’s game also comes a very important flaw – tackling. I know it may seem surprising that the SEC’s top tackler’s greatest weakness is tackling itself, but this is the case. Cunningham’s various game-tapes are filled with many missed tackles, with a large quantity being sloppy arm tackles or tackling at too high of a pad level. Here’s just one example from the many.

More of the same from Cunningham, great instincts and speed to ball but he cannot finish. With a clear shot at the running back, Cunningham aims high instead of low, grabbing a piece of the back’s facemask in the process. Perhaps due to his lack of size, Cunningham’s tackling fundamentals are the linebacker’s greatest weak spot.

What NFL scouts and executives would like to see from Cunningham is more of this.

Cunningham bends his knees in a squat position, generating power and then drives into his target. As a result, the Missouri running back Ish Witter is stopped short of the end zone.  More one on one tackling like this from Cunningham and perhaps instead of 125 total tackles, he approaches 150 and is a safe bet as a top 15 selection.

While Cunningham’s instincts and awareness project as first round material, his tackling does not. As a result, the Vanderbilt product could slide down some draft boards. I do not envision Cunningham being sought after by the Pittsburgh Steelers, even with Lawrence Timmons due to be a free agent come March. Instead, Cunningham could see himself as a possible candidate for playing as a Will linebacker in a 4-3 at the next level. Look for a team desperate to fix their run defense to snatch Cunningham early.

Projection: Day One

Games Watched: vs Georgia, vs Missouri, vs Tennessee, vs Florida, vs South Carolina

Previous 2017 NFL Draft Player Profiles
Deshaun WatsonHaason ReddickMarshon LattimoreCorey ClementTim Williams
Jourdan LewisTakkarist McKinleyBrad KaayaNathan PetermanO.J. Howard
Charles HarrisAlvin KamaraTyus BowserDavid NjokuDeMarcus Walker
Chidobe AwuzieDeShone KizerMarlon MackCameron Sutton

About the Author

Daniel Valente

Steelers fan from birth, spending majority of my free time looking up statistics. Had the honor of meeting Mike Vanderjagt shortly after his infamous missed field goal in the 2005 Divisional Round. Currently pursuing a Journalism degree. Follow me on Twitter @StatsGuyDaniel

  • falconsaftey43

    It really is shocking how many tackles he misses. I went through some of his high tackle total games and really think a lot of his credited tackles were generous. Many featured him getting a poor attempt at an arm tackle on a guy that fails, but is masked by teammates cleaning it up. He does have a lot of other great qualities, but the guy is a bad tackler. No thanks. Round 3 for me.

  • PaeperCup

    No bueno.

  • PaeperCup

    Being that tackling is one of this defenses top concerns, I’d be very wary. Although we do give Shazier a ton of praise despite is many missed tackles.

  • Steelers12


  • steelburg

    I agree. The guy is a consistent arm tackler and I have a huge issue with that. NFL RB’S will run through this guy like tacos, beans, and rice on Taco Tuesdays. That’s a very good meal might I add and worth the trip to the bathroom.

  • falconsaftey43

    I can’t stand how many tackles Shazier misses. He has a huge positive impact on the game with his ability to blow up plays, but the guy needs to learn to break down and make the tackle more consistently.

  • NinjaMountie

    Nah…can do better.

  • John Mazza

    Looking at this kid makes me miss Feeney.

  • Kevin Gobleck

    The coverage ability of Timmons
    The pass rush ability of Jarvis Jones
    The hands of Ike Taylor
    I give you: Zach Cunningham

  • PaeperCup

    Your face can do better.

  • LucasY59

    looking at Reddick and Bowser make me think they lost a player that couldve been really useful

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    It’s not a popular viewpoint but I agree with you. Hopefully he will realize at some point that he doesn’t have to play at top speed 100% of the time on every play.

  • LucasY59

    this guy has a lot of experience and production against big time college competition, he has speed and range that would make him a valuable ILB, but I think the team would be more interested in Haasan Reddick (but Cunningham could be a 2nd option, even though they will most likely go with other 1st options at other positions instead)

  • Ike Evans

    That georgia tech game kinda scared me off this kid

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Even though I do not want him he is a potential 1st rounder which means he is suppose to have some talent….but still a funny comment.

  • Steve

    Arm tackles might have worked in College, but in the pro’s the backs will run right through them. For that reason the Steelers need to pass on Zach Cunningham.

  • thomas hmmmm

    Yea I feel the same way about the missed tackles by Shaz but man do his intangibles show up big and change games.
    This guy kind of reminds me of Shaz, if his speed and athleticism can compare to Shaziers then I would be fine with having two of them in the middle. Especially on passing downs where your more than likely tackling a weaker receiver than a stronger rb.
    Timmons is atrocious in pass D we need an upgrade in that department for ILB.

  • thomas hmmmm

    Funny.. Well at least two out of the three are PB worthy players and if Ike had hands I am pretty sure he would be a HOF player because his coverage skills were pretty damn good.

  • The Truth

    Then again it is better than the many armless tackles many Steelers defenders employ on the field : )

  • Daniel Valente

    Creative idea, but I think having two players with similar attributes at inside linebacker would leave us incredibly vulnerable and easy to take advantage of.

  • Kevin Gobleck

    I completely agree! Ike was a great corner, If only he did have hands. But yeah I’m not knocking on the kid or anything just trying to cause a laugh or two

  • Kevin Gobleck

    Oh yeah this kid is talented though

  • Matt Manzo

    Are there any Jatavis Browns in this draft?!