Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
Hello Eagles Fans! Stop me if you have heard this narrative before...
After another pedestrian season where the team failed to make the playoffs, the Birds enter the off-season with questions at Wide Receiver, Cornerback, and Edge Pass Rusher.
As an Eagles fan, I can relate our friends down I-95. Like Philly, Baltimore is a gritty, blue-collar town with a rich NFL history. They boast a strong fan base that gravitates to the defensive side of the ball. They have their own head coach from the Andy Reid coaching tree and the fans have a chip on their shoulder, largely due to the hype and attention their big-city next-door neighbor receives. They do have two rings (three if you count the Colts) but, hey, at least they aren't smug about it. In a lot of ways, I view Baltimore as Philly's younger brother. So I felt particularly compelled to make this selection.
With the 16th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Ravens select, Zach Cunningham, Linebacker, Vanderbilt.
A linebacker? I thought you just said that their needs were Corner, Wide Receiver and Pass Rush? I did say that. But that was at the start of the offseason. Let me explain.
To understand this pick, we have to go back to Christmas Day 2016. The Ravens and Steelers were set to square off in another classic match-up with the division title and a playoff spot on the line. Third-year, undrafted linebacker Zach Orr was on his way to capping off his breakout season, where he led the team with 132 tackles, in addition to 41 assists and 3 interceptions. Orr sustained a neck injury during the game that ended his season and soon his career.
The neck injury Orr sustained that night, however, may have saved his life. While treating his neck injury, Orr's doctors discovered that Orr had a congenital spine condition that placed him at serious risk of injury and potentially death if he continued to play football. In reality, it's a miracle in itself that he managed to play football most of his life without a major injury.
On January 20th, Orr announced his retirement from football at the age of 24. Via the Baltimore Ravens' website:
"I'm really just blessed and thankful that we were able to find this problem," Orr said. "The doctors and Ravens medical staff probably ended up saving my life, and definitely allowed me to live a normal lifestyle.
"I'm blessed and thankful that I'm able to walk away from the game in good health."
While Orr maintained a positive attitude through it all, it's hard not to feel for the guy, to have such a promising career cut way too short. In less than a month, the Ravens went from having a strong ILB tandem, to a glaring hole opposite C.J. Mosley. And in a matter of weeks, the Ravens added another need to their board.
Enter Zach Cunningham. The junior linebacker from Vanderbilt thrived in an otherwise talent-depleted Commodores defense. Cunningham was a two-time first-team All-SEC player and Vanderbilt's first and only unanimous All-American. Cunningham led the SEC in 2016 with 125 tackles, of which 16.5 were tackles for loss. Cunningham's performance is not an isolated occurrence, having posted 103 tackles, 14 TFL in his sophomore season.
As a player, Cunningham is a rare combination of size, athleticism, and intelligence. Cunningham's anticipation at the line is exceptional, often knowing exactly where the ball is going. This anticipation allows Cunningham to play downhill and shoot through the hole before the back gets there. He's got the size and length to cover a tight end with the speed and athleticism to cover an RB out of the backfield. Cunningham is a three down linebacker who excels against both the pass and run. He is an aggressive defender, attacking the blocker and showing surprising lateral speed for a player his size.
Cunningham projects as a Will linebacker in a 4-3 system or an inside linebacker in a 3-4 system. In joining the Ravens, Cunningham will have to add some weight to his frame. At 6'3", 234 lbs, Cunningham enters the NFL slightly undersized for a 3-4 system, but his long frame leaves plenty of room for growth. Cunningham will also need to shore up his tackling skills, as he has a habit of arm tackling when taking on a runner one-on-one. Both of these issues are fixable, especially in a system like the Ravens' that has history of developing talent at the linebacker position
What impressed me most about Cunningham was his positioning. As a star player on a depleted roster, most players feel like they "have to make a play" if their team will stand a chance. Often this will carry a player out of position (e.g. over-commit, lose containment) turning their talent into a liability. Not Cunningham. Cunningham made plays, but more importantly, you rarely find him out of position. While Cunningham plays aggressively, his play does not leave his teammates hanging out to dry.
At the end of the day, the Ravens are a team that prides itself on building through the draft. To do this, they need to consistently hit on their first round picks. If there is one position where the Ravens have proven they have the ability to identify talent its linebacker (See Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Adalius Thomas, CJ Mosley, Zach Orr). While I am not claiming Cunningham is the next Ray Lewis, I am confident that Cunningham will continue the proud linebacker tradition of the Baltimore Ravens.
2017 BGN Mock Draft Order
1) Browns (JALupowitz): Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
2) 49ers (sports00fan00): Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
3) Bears (gubby): Jonathan Allen, DT, Alabama
4) Jaguars (TheWhalwing): Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
5) Titans (drc242): Jamal Adams, S, LSU
6) Jets (boomorbust): Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State
7) Chargers (NowWhat?): Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State
8) Panthers (B-Potts): Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
9) Bengals (Kiko’s Delivery Service): Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
10) Bills (jimmyrustler): O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
11) Saints (NotSoSlick): Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
12) Browns (Straight Edge Sid): Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
13) Cardinals (Paulie97): Haason Reddick, LB, Temple
14) Eagles (ablesser88): Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
15) Colts (mconner96): Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
16) Ravens (The Man, The Myth, the Matthews!): Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
17) Washington (kbruneault):
18) Titans (mchiodo):
19) Buccaneers (ei78):
20) Broncos (NVEaglesShark):
21) Lions (Shark Fighter):
22) Dolphins (J. Wil):
23) Giants (BigWardy59):
24) Raiders (big DUB):
25) Texans (GotFunds):
26) Seahawks (Rogmcc23):
27) Chiefs (B1G Cat):
28) Cowboys (RegalEagle):
29) Packers (Wutang_):
30) Steelers (General_Lee12):
31) Falcons (SirJon):
32) Saints (Huffs_cellmate):