Last August, the Texans signed Zach Cunningham to a four-year, $58MM extension, which positioned Cunningham as one of the highest-paid off-ball linebackers in the game. Although he continued to struggle in coverage in 2020, his run defense and pass rush abilities remained at a high level, and he led the league with 164 total tackles. Now, over a year later and with a new regime in place in Houston, Cunningham’s future with the club may be uncertain.
The Vanderbilt product missed the team’s Week 4 blowout loss to the Bills due to his placement on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and he appeared in only 33 snaps in the Texans’ defeat at the hands of the Patriots last week, his lowest total since Week 17 of the 2019 campaign. Meanwhile, fellow LBs Christian Kirksey and Kamu Grugier-Hill played every snap against New England.
Although Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics have some volatility in small sample sizes, PFF pegs Cunningham as a below-average to poor defender in all three defensive categories (pass rush, coverage, and run defense) thus far this season. Plus, Cunningham missed the first quarter of Houston’s Week 2 loss to the Browns due to “disciplinary reasons,” and he missed a preseason game against the Bucs due to “personal reasons.” Add it all up, and Aaron Wilson of Sports Talk 790 wonders if Cunningham will remain with the Texans for the long haul.
Of course, his persistent coverage issues limit his appeal to other clubs. Teams want their LBs to be able to cover receivers over the middle of the field, and Cunningham’s inability to do that on a consistent basis is a problem. His eight-figure AAV contract would also serve as a barrier to a potential trade.
And, because that contract was restructured for salary cap purposes earlier this year, the Texans would be saddled with a major dead money hit with minimal cap savings if they were to release Cunningham this offseason. So while it could be that the 26-year-old (27 in December) will remain in Houston through at least 2022, his role going forward is certainly up in the air.
“His role has been for us, first and second down is where he’s most comfortable,” head coach David Culley recently said. “He’s a heck of a player, and [we] expect more out of him as well as the other guys that are playing around him.”
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