When Zach Cunningham was a high school senior at Pinson Valley High in Alabama, he recorded 194 tackles, including 41 for loss and 12 sacks.
Yet the linebacker was not recruited by his favorite team, the University of Alabama.
“I wasn’t one of the bigger-name guys that played in the beginning,” Cunningham said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “So I really came out of nowhere.”
Well, not exactly nowhere.
Cunningham has hit the first-round radar of many NFL Draft evaluators, and become a popular mock choice for the Miami Dolphins, because of what he accomplished at Vanderbilt.
For starters, Cunningham led the SEC with 125 tackles last season, 10 more than Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, also a projected first-round draft choice who happened to be sent home from the combine after a dispute with a hospital worker.
Regretfully, the SEC schedule never allowed Cunningham to face the Crimson Tide.
Cunningham is a highly-logical projected choice for the linebacker-needy Dolphins because he has traits the organization covets: instincts, versatility, speed, intelligence and an attacking, play-making mindset.
“I think I’m a lengthy player,” Cunningham, 6-feet-3, 234 pounds, said. “A pretty fast player. Speed. A sideline-to-sideline player. And that’s something that has helped me. That and my instincts has helped me to be a good player.”
The Dolphins have secured a durable veteran middle linebacker, Lawrence Timmons, in free agency. This will likely allow Miami to move productive linebacker Kiko Alonso outside.
Koa Misi’s health is a concern. Jelani Jenkins seems unlikely to return. And Neville Hewitt is a promising developmental player.
Cunningham has the capability of playing outside or inside linebacker, but could potentially join Timmons and Alonso to create a much-improved linebacker unit.
Cunningham had 16.5 tackles for loss last season, a statistic coach Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Matt Burke will surely note.
And the film shows he can also effectively cover linebackers and running backs.
“I feel I am one of the better linebackers as far as pass coverage goes,” Cunningham said.
According to a scouting report by NFL.com, Cunningham is a “play-making machine,” “plays on a downhill tilt and is always looking to draw first blood,” “creates tackles for losses by shooting gaps at appropriate angles,” is a “football magnet with outstanding tackle production and ability to create and recover turnovers” and is “durable and reliable.”
Pro Football Focus labeled Cunningham “the best linebacker you’ve never heard of.”
But that article was published before last season.
According to PFF, Cunningham grades well against the run, in coverage and as a pass-rusher. The scouts at PFF cite Cunningham’s speed, physicality, and understanding of the game.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has said Cunningham is one of those players who can translate football “from the class to the grass.”
Some have compared Cunningham to Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, Browns linebacker Jamie Collins or Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree.
Cunningham says he is a team player. He proudly describes the enjoyment he took from playing guitar in a band.
“It all ties together in being in a group,” Cunningham said. “Being a part of a big family. Something that everyone is really aimed at achieving something that’s bigger than themselves, for the group as a whole. And that’s something that definitely relates to football.”
Cunningham is a fan of John Legend. He says he’d get together with some of his Vanderbilt teammates and have some R&B or Jazz “jam sessions.”
But Cunningham wants to leave no doubt his first love is football. It’s important to him. He’s driven to put the notion of being overlooked behind him.
“I have a great work ethic,” Cunningham said. “Passion for the game. Passion for what I do. A hard player. A team player. Always putting the team first. I’m a guy that’s going to sell himself out for his teammates as much as my teammates would sell themselves out for me.”
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