Back for a third year, it’s time for the annual “Pick or Pass” series from our team of writers. Over the four-and-a-half weeks remaining before the 2017 draft, our writers will break down eight different draft prospects by providing their thoughts on whether they think Reggie McKenzie and Co. will ‘pick’ or ‘pass’ on the player in question.
To start off 2017, we’ll look at Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham — who is tied with Michigan State’s Malik McDowell for the most mock drafts sending him to Oakland (3). As it stands, Cunningham is the preferred pick for Oakland at No. 24 according to Pro Football Focus, SB Nation and Dane Brugler of CBSSports.
So what do our writers think?
Jeff Spiegel (@JeffSpiegel)
I remember watching the tail end of Vanderbilt’s shocking upset of Georgia in October and I honestly couldn’t take my eyes off of Zach Cunningham. In the game, Georgia faced Fourth-and-One on their final drive from Vandy’s 41 yard line and opted to pitch the ball to receiver Isaiah McKenzie — who was stopped a foot short of the marker by none other than Cunningham.
It was his NINETEENTH tackle of the game.
On the season, Cunningham finished with 125 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss — good for both first-team SEC honors and first-team All-American honors as well. Keep in mind that all of this took place on a Vanderbilt team that barely snuck into bowl season.
For me, this has to be the draft that the Raiders finally address the linebacker position — and of all the guys out there, I think Cunningham makes the most sense.
Dan LeBaron (@dtlebaron)
Two time first-team All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham had a tendency to wrap up opposing players and viciously throw them to the ground during his time at Vanderbilt. That style relies on pure strength rather than technique and will not fly at the next level. His physical strength may have been enough to overpower collegiate opponents, but it will definitely be his biggest critique going into the NFL draft. He put up a paltry 16 reps on the bench press at the combine, which didn't even put him in the top 10 at his position group.
Then again, drills aren't everything.
Despite lacking ideal size and performing poorly in strength drills, Cunningham is going to be a game-changer at the next level. You simply don't make the first-team All-SEC team (let alone twice) without bringing a ton to the table in terms of versatility and production. Cunningham flew around the field on game days, racking up 125 tackles last season. A road-running, athletic linebacker like Cunningham is what the Raiders desperately need in the middle of the field.
The Raiders haven't had a great middle linebacker in what seems like forever. Though they are flush with edge talent, a thumper up the middle is one of the final pieces to the defensive puzzle. When you watch Zach Cunningham, he checks all the boxes. He's big and fast, he can cover and he has amazing sideline to sideline speed. Cunningham is a first-team All-American and is one of the best defensive players in the defense-heavy SEC.
Cunningham's main flaw is his tackling. While he hits hard and uses his explosive speed to disrupt plays, he tends to tackle high. Against SEC backs that might work, but NFL backs are bigger and stronger than that and will simply shrug off an arm tackle. But that's a matter of technique and it can be coached up. There's no questions about Cunningham's talent or intelligence. Vanderbilt coach Derrick Mason compared Cunningham's mental aptitude to that of Stanford graduate and Seahawks corner Richard Sherman. If the Raiders were to take Cunningham, they'd get a player who knows exactly what to do at all times and takes excellent angles to the ball and blows plays up before they have a chance to unfold.
Because of what I've mentioned, I am almost convinced Cunningham will be taken well before the Raiders pick. However, if he's still on the board, he could be the key to unleashing the team's defensive potential.
Levi Damien (@LeviDamien)
Middle linebacker is arguably the most needed position for the Raiders. Has been for several years. A couple years back, they signed veteran Curtis Lofton to play the position. It was a smart signing based solely on the need at the position, but it was quickly apparent that his shortcomings in coverage were not going to work for the Raiders.
Zach Cunningham has no such shortcomings. He is a solid all-around inside linebacker. He’s rangy and athletic and plays in coverage as well as he does against the run. That all-around game is something Reggie McKenzie learned to covet during his time in Green Bay and fellow former NFL linebacker Jack Del Rio shares his views in that regard.