Zach Cunningham

Latest On LB Zach Cunningham’s Future With Texans

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.”

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Minor NFL Transactions: 10/6/21

We’ll keep track of today’s minor moves here:

Arizona Cardinals

Cincinnati Bengals

Cleveland Browns

Detroit Lions

Green Bay Packers

Houston Texans

Miami Dolphins

New England Patriots

New Orleans Saints

New York Jets 

Minor NFL Transactions: 10/1/21

Here are Friday’s minor moves:

Detroit Lions

Houston Texans

Los Angeles Chargers

New England Patriots

Tennessee Titans

Texans Restructure Zach Cunningham’s Deal

The Texans have restructured Zach Cunningham‘s contract (Twitter link via ESPN.com’s Field Yates). The move will allow Houston to save $5.63MM in cap space by converting $7.51M of the linebacker’s 2021 base salary converted into a signing bonus. 

Cunningham inked a four-year, $58MM extension last summer, keeping him under club control through 2024. Since then, Cunningham has been a fixture in the Texans’ front seven. In 2019, he took a big leap forward with 142 stops, two sacks, and two passes defensed in 16 games (all starts). He led the league in run stops that year, posting a career-best run-defense grade of 84.8, per Pro Football Focus.

This past year, he shined on a less-than-stellar Texans defense and led the league with 164 total tackles. He also posted a career-high three sacks. Still, his 43.0 coverage grade needs to improve in order for the Texans to keep opposing tight ends in check.

The Texans have been working diligently to tamp down their cap figure in recent days. Last week, they also adjusted Witney Mercilus’ deal to find extra space while allowing the linebacker to reach free agency after the 2021 season.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Texans, Zach Cunningham Agree To $58MM Deal

The Texans and linebacker Zach Cunningham have agreed to a four-year, $58MM extension, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. The new portion of the deal gives Cunningham an average annual salary of $14.5MM per year and keeps him under club control through 2024.

[RELATED: Texans Work Out C.J. Prosise]

When the Texans moved up from No. 25 to land Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft, they figured that Cunningham would land elsewhere. The Giants were particularly interested in the Vanderbilt product but, luckily for Houston, they chose Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram instead at No. 23 and passed on Cunningham again at No. 55, allowing them to grab the ‘backer at No. 57 overall.

Since then, Cunningham has been a fixture in the Texans’ front seven. He took another giant leap forward last year, logging 142 stops, two sacks, and two passes defensed in 16 games (all starts). Cunningham led the league in run stops, posted a career-best run-defense grade of 84.8 (per Pro Football Focus), and routinely flustered quarterbacks with his 82-inch wingspan.

Cunningham has been knocked for his inconsistent coverage, but he’s one of the league’s better inside linebackers on the whole. Meanwhile, he’s still shy of his 26th birthday in December. The contract positions Cunningham as the league’s tenth highest-paid ILB, sandwiched between Shaquil Barrett of the Buccaneers and Deion Jones of the Falcons.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Texans Sign Deshaun Watson

The Texans have signed the bulk of their 2017 draft class. Only third round running back D’Onta Foreman remains unsigned. Here’s the full list of every Houston draft pick who is now under contract: "<strong

The Texans were said to be targeting Watson for several weeks and we learned on draft night that it wasn’t just a smokescreen. Houston traded this year’s No. 25 overall pick and its 2018 first round choice to get the No. 12 selection from the Browns in order to take the Clemson QB. Watson was universally regarded as one of the top QBs in this year’s class and some might argue that the athletic signal caller has more upside than any of his peers. Now, the rookie might have a chance at wrestling the starting job away from Tom Savage.

Cunningham was projected by some as a first round pick and he almost went No. 23 overall when the Giants were on the clock. Luckily for Houston, the Giants wound up taking Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram at No. 23 and passed on him again at No. 55, allowing them to grab the Vanderbilt product all the way down at No. 57.

Photo via Pro Football Rumors on Instagram.

NFC Draft Rumors: 49ers, Foster, Bucs, Cook

49ers GM John Lynch says that he came away from Day 1 with two of the top three players on his board. Had the Bears taken Solomon Thomas at No. 2, he says the team might have selected Reuben Foster at No. 3 (Twitter links via Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee).

Lynch managed to get both defenders when Foster took a somewhat unexpected slide. Armed with the additional draft capital afforded to him from the No. 2 and No. 3 swap with the Bears, Lynch moved back up into the late first round to get the Alabama inside linebacker. We’ll never know for sure if the Niners would have seriously considered Foster at No. 3, but it’s hard to deny that they got an excellent value by getting him late in the first.

Here’s more out of the NFC:

  • The Buccaneers passed on FSU running back Dalvin Cook in the first round in part because of what they’ve seen out of Doug Martin, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. Rapoport hears that he has been the most impressive player at the facility so far this offseason. Martin was disappointing, to say the least, in 2016, but he has shown in the past that he can produce like a top running back.
  • When asked if the player he had slotted for 37th overall was still on the board, Rams GM Les Snead said: “To be honest, yes,” (Twitter link via Alden Gonzalez of ESPN.com). Gonzalez suggests that receivers Zay Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerbacks Kevin King and Quincy Wilson could be in consideration for the Rams.
  • With the No. 23 pick, some in the Giants‘ war room were pushing for Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham, Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com writes. Instead, they chose Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram. Cunningham remains on the board as we enter Day 2, but the Giants aren’t scheduled to be up until the 23rd pick in the second round (No. 55 overall).

Draft Rumors: Kelly, Peterman, Jones, Chiefs

In addition to the Bills, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly has also met with the Seahawks and Chiefs, as Kelly told SiriusXM NFL Radio (Twitter link). In addition, Kelly said he’s had phone calls with several other clubs. Kelly, the nephew of Bills legend Jim Kelly, is considered a Day 3 prospect thanks a multitude of injury concerns and off-field issues. After recovering quickly from a ACL tear, Kelly underwent wrist surgery in early April and won’t be able to throw for three months. Both Seattle and Kansas City are potentially looking for developmental quarterbacks to play behind Russell Wilson and Alex Smith, respectively.

Here’s more on the 2017 NFL draft:

  • Both the Chargers and Cardinals have hosted Pittsburgh quarterback Nathan Peterman on visits, as Peterman himself explained on Pro Football Talk Live. Peterman, who is likely to be selected on Day 2 of the draft, is viewed as a high-floor signal-caller in the vein of an Andy Dalton. Los Angeles and Arizona each employ veteran quarterbacks in Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer and could be looking to find long-term successors under center. The Chargers, notably, have been more open about their desire to land a youthful passer in 2017, and are reportedly putting in “ample work” on the 2017 class.
  • North Carolina State safety Josh Jones embarked on a “last minute” visit with the Raiders earlier this week, tweets Josh Norris of Rotoworld. Oakland already used a first-round pick on defensive back Karl Joseph in 2016, but Jones could be an eventual replacement for 33-year-old Reggie Nelson. Jones is considered a Round 2 prospect, but he’s been hosted by a significant number of NFL clubs during the predraft process, and there’s a chance he could sneak into Day 1. In 2016, Jones put up 109 tackles, three interceptions, and one sack.
  • A Redskins contingent traveled to Alabama on Friday to meet with Crimson Tide edge defender Ryan Anderson, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN.com (Twitter link). Anderson, who managed 8.5 sacks in 2016, has also met with Houston, Carolina, and Arizona. Likely a Day 2 prospect, Anderson was compared to San Francisco’s Ahmad Brooks by Lance Zierlein of NFL.com. Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith are penciled as Washington’s starting outside linebackers (Trent Murphy is suspended for the first four games of 2017).
  • Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham took late predraft visits with the Jaguars and Broncos, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (Twitter link). Cunningham, a projected Day 2 pick, has also been linked to the Giants and Saints. Earlier this year, a scout told Matt Miller of Bleacher Report that Cunningham “needs to gain strength” and “make more tackles.”

NFC South Notes: Panthers, Falcons, Saints

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey visited the Panthers last week, and one NFL general manager tells Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (Twitter link) that it “wouldn’t be shocking or surprising” if Carolina tabs McCaffrey at No. 8. Many mock drafts have sent LSU’s Leonard Fournette or Florida State’s Dalvin Cook going to the Panthers in the first round, and as Rapoport notes, McCaffrey isn’t exactly a scheme fit for Carolina. But McCaffrey is now expected to be selected within the top 10 picks, and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera recently indicated no slot is “too high” to draft a running back. Carolina recently inked incumbent back Jonathan Stewart to an extension through 2018, but that deal won’t preclude them from adding another runner.

Here’s more from the NFC South:

  • The Falcons hosted Houston edge rusher Tyus Bowser on Tuesday, tweets Adam Caplan of ESPN.com. In his senior season with the Cougars, Bowser registered 8.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and four passes defensed. He ranks as the 36th overall prospect in the draft, in the estimation of Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com, who lauds Bowser’s “tremendous play speed” and ability to match up against opposing tight ends. Atlanta’s current pass-rushing group consists of Vic Beasley and an amalgamation of average to below-average players: Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw, Derrick Shelby, and Jack Crawford.
  • UCLA edge rusher Takkarist McKinley met with two NFC South clubs — the Panthers and Falcons — this week, per Rapoport (Twitter link), who adds McKinley will visit with four more unidentified teams next week. Both Carolina and Atlanta could use youthful reinforcements on the edge, and McKinley stock has vacillated enough that he could conceivably be selected at No. 8 (Panthers) or No. 31 (Falcons). For what it’s worth, I sent McKinley to Atlanta in PFR’s first mock draft of 2017. Following shoulder surgery, McKinley may miss part or all of an NFL training camp and preseason.
  • The Saints hosted Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham today, and have been showing “a lot of interest” in the Commodore defender during the predraft process, according to Nick Underhill of the Advocate (Twitter link). New Orleans already added veteran off-ball linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o to a second-level group that also includes Craig Robertson, Dannell Ellerbe, and Stephone Anthony. Earlier this year, a scout told Matt Miller of Bleacher Report that Cunningham “needs to gain strength” and “make more tackles.”

NFC East Notes: Cowboys, Eagles, Giants

Safeties aren’t a priority in Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli‘s scheme, according to Todd Archer of ESPN.com, which could help explain why Dallas didn’t seriously attempt to re-sign Barry Church or J.J. Wilcox. Church landed a four-year, $26MM deal with the Jaguars, while Wilcox inked a two-year, $6.5MM pact with the Buccaneers. Former first-round pick Byron Jones, meanwhile, is signed for two more years (plus a fifth-year option), and could be an interesting “case study” as Dallas will be forced to consider handing a hefty contract to a safety, per Archer.

Here’s more from the NFC East:

  • The Eagles hosted UConn safety Obi Melifonwu for a top-30 draft visit on Thursday, tweets Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. At least seven other NFL teams have expressed interest in Melifonwu, who is expected to be drafted in the the first or second round. Philadelphia is set at safety for the immediate future, although veteran Malcolm Jenkins has reportedly been discussed in trade talks.
  • Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham has “attracted the interest” of the Giants, and could be in the mix for New York when it picks at No. 23, Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com writes. While the Giants famously haven’t selected a first-round linebacker since 1984, the club needs reinforcements at the position, as Devon Kennard, Keenan Robinson, and Jonathan Casillas isn’t exactly a world-beating starting group. Earlier this year, a scout told Matt Miller of Bleacher Report that Cunningham “needs to gain strength” and “make more tackles.”
  • Offensive lineman Byron Bell‘s one-year deal with the Cowboys has a base value of $2MM, reports Wilson (Twitter link). Bell, 28, will receive a $1MM base salary, a $250K signing bonus, and $300K in per-game roster bonuses. He can also earn another $450K through weight bonuses, which will immediately count on Dallas’ salary cap as likely-to-be-earned because they’re considered to be under the player’s control.