A few short years ago, the San Francisco 49ers had a linebacker corps that struck fear in the hearts of men and gods. There was no place to run or pass on NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis or Aldon Smith. An offense was better off curling into the fetal position, praying these mighty men would grant mercy and spare their lives.
What helped the linebackers was a stout defensive line. Those warriors in the trenches denied themselves glory and funneled running backs and scrambling quarterbacks to the linebackers for execution. The 49ers ran an excellent textbook defense: take on the block, close the gaps, hold the edge and let the linebackers clean up the mess.
But, the Football Gods are fickle deities. As with everything beautiful they create, so they destroy. Bowman suffered two major injuries, Willis retired, Chris Borland quit and just to spite us, Ahmad Brooks is still here.
Last year, the team ran out of linebackers, so Trent Baalke had to sign Carl Bradford and Wynton McManis. Bradford and McManis came to the 49ers with a combined career total of 2 tackles. And for some odd reason, the 49ers signed an injured Ray-Ray Armstrong to two-year contract extension.
All of this points to one absolute: The 49ers need to draft an inside linebacker. Hell, they might have to draft three inside linebackers just to ensure Carl Bradford isn’t running the defense.
Zach Cunningham is a 6’4, 230-pound redshirt junior who played inside linebacker at Vanderbilt the last three years. He’s coming off an All-American season, where he racked up an SEC-leading 119 tackles.
Cunningham played Mike, Will and Strike/Sam backer in a very traditional 4-3 defense. At one point, I thought, “We ran this defense in high school.” He can quickly cover ground and jump on backs running passing routes in the flat or trying to turn up the field on a wheel route. Y-seam routes are easy to cover for Cunningham, and he can handle receivers lined up in the slot position.
On certain formations, Vanderbilt’s defense required Cunningham to cover the Z, which proved to be no problem for him. On some plays, Cunningham put himself in an excellent position to deflect passes against a variety of routes. Even if he found himself a bit out of position, Cunningham’s overall athleticism allowed him to deny a completed pass.
Don’t let Cunningham find a gap on a stretch run, as he’ll shoot-and-destroy whoever is carrying the ball on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Cunningham can sniff out a fumble or a bobbled punt like nobody else on the field. Cunningham finds himself in the right place at the right time quite often, even if the play or defense breaks down around him.
Cunningham is brimming with athletic ability and football talent. I have no doubt he’s relied on these to become one of the top linebackers in the nation. But, like Marcellus Wallace told Butch, “You’ve got ability. But as painful as it may be, ability don’t last.”
There’s one attribute everyone in the NFL has: Ability. Even Jay Cutler has ability, though we measure it on the atomic level. Professional football players have been dominate since they stepped on a chalked field, looking like a men among boys in high school and college. Once drafted, ability gets thrown to the side of the highway. That All-Turlock Journal Utility Player distinction and the coaches’ award from 1997 mean nothing. My question mark for Cunningham is if he can refine that ability to be great.
Through four pages of film notes, I did not write, “Wow! What a play!” or “He knocked that running back’s man parts in the dirt!” Cunningham found himself blocked out of a lot of plays, or not shedding the lead block to disrupt the run. Even without an all-22 film, Cunningham was duped play-action because he was peeking in the backfield rather than reading the guards. Therefore, he was well out-of-position to make a play or an impact. I checked Cunningham’s scouting report on Pro Football Focus to see if I was right on the observation. Sure enough, they confirmed my genius: “Will at times lose his man in zone coverage by peeking in the backfield.”
Cunningham is a bit raw on his stunts and found himself running into a double-team block or allowing a lead blocker to control his outside shoulder. I noted that Cunningham tackled a bit high, and again thought it was due to the camera angle. Once again, Pro Football Focus also listed this as a concern: “Tries to tackle high far too often, leading to missed tackles that he is in a position to finish.”
Zach Cunningham would be an excellent complement to NaVarro Bowman at inside linebacker, simply because he could take a lot of the pressure off of Boman’s shoulders. Additionally, the 49ers could trade down a few spots and still pick Cunningham with a selection between the 10th and 20th spots. Any bets Cunningham surpasses both Bradford and McManis in career tackles by the end of his first professional game?