The Dolphins defense wasn’t very good in 2016, and most of that burden rests on the shoulders of the Dolphins’ linebackers. Throughout the season, this unit remained a liability against the pass, and allowed the team to finish 30th against the run. The unit wasn’t all bad. Kiko Alonso played well and looked greatly improved from his poor year in Philadelphia. He recorded 115 tackles and 2 interceptions last season. Alonso remained solid against the run, but like others, struggled against the pass.
Outside of Alonso, however, the unit struggled mightily. Koa Misi got hurt at the beginning of the season, and forced the Dolphins to insert player after player with little-to-no success. Jelani Jenkins continued to look average, and guys like Spencer Paysinger, Neville Hewitt, and Donald Butler were unable to make a lasting impact. In year’s past, Miami would use Reshad Jones to disguise the defenses’ greatest area of weakness, but not this season. Though many of these players will play elsewhere in 2017, the Dolphins will need to find a linebacker in this year’s draft, and very few are better than Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham.
Weight: 230 LBs
Hometown: Pinson, Alabama
As stated several times previously, the Dolphins struggled a great deal against the run last season. Fortunately for Miami, Zach Cunningham strives against the run. He welcomes contact, and shows the ability to shed blocks with relative ease. Here, you see him initiate contact, shed the blocker, and make the tackle. This is something the Dolphins so desperately need.
Below, Cunningham shows off his quick burst. He blows past the guard, meeting the running back in the backfield.
As stated previously, Cunningham isn’t afraid of contact. Here, he hits the lineman with force, sheds the block and stops the running back dead in his tracks.
He has smart football instincts, and appears to be around the football in nearly every play. Here, he sees the play develop and punishes the running back.
Another example of his quick instincts, is his ability to read and react against the pass. Here, he makes a quick decision to break on the football, resulting in a pass breakup.
Here’s another angle of his pass breakup.
Cunningham had one of the best games of his collegiate career vs Georgia. He made play after play, shedding block after block. He looked good throughout the entire game, and played a crucial role in the team’s 17-16 victory over the Bulldogs.
Here, he reads the play well. He pursues the football, runs over a lineman, and makes the stop. No one can stop Cunningham from reaching the ball carrier. Impressive, impressive play.
In this play, Cunningham uses his quickness to beat the lineman. The end result is a minimal gain for one of the country’s best running backs.
Here’s another look at this impressive play. Cunningham slips by the guard, making the tackle in the backfield. Drafting Cunningham would immediately fix the Dolphins’ lackluster run defense, and add a playmaker to Matt Burke’s defense.
Again, Cunningham reads the play perfectly. He waits for the lane to open, and explodes into the backfield. Nick Chubb has no chance.
This is the most impressive play of the game. The score is 17-16, late in the fourth. With the game on the line, Cunningham makes the play of the game. He sheds the defender, stuffing the back short of the first down marker. Game over.
One more look...
With the good, comes the bad and there is definitely room for improvement with Cunningham. He lacks ideal size, and has a tendency to give up outside contain at times.
Here, Cunningham loses outside contain and tries to beat the blocker to the inside. Instead, it leaves a wide open lane for the running back.
In this next play, Cunningham misreads the play and tries to stop the quarterback from getting to the outside. Instead, it leaves open a huge hole, allowing the running back to pick up a big gain. The read option has become a commodity in the NFL, and something he must continue to improve on if he wants to be among the league’s best.
If Georgia was one of Cunningham’s best games, then his game vs Tennessee last season had to be his worst. He looked overpowered at times, and had trouble tackling.
Despite reading and reacting well to the screen, Cunningham is unable to make the tackle on the ball carrier, allowing the touchdown. His ability to get to the play was impressive, but that’s a tackle he must make.
In this play, Cunningham appears to read the play well. However, he takes a poor angle, allowing the running back to get to the outside for a respectable game. This remains a problem for Cunningham and something he must improve on at the next level.
Here, Cunningham separates from his first block and appears to have a shot at the running back. He is unable to make the tackle, allowing the running back to score. These are plays NFL teams will expect him to make at the next level and something he must improve on this offseason.
Whether or not Cunningham is available when the Dolphins are on the clock, is anyone’s guess. He possesses the skills to succeed at the next level, and should become a play-making linebacker wherever he ends up. Although he might be better suited as a 3-4 inside linebacker, Cunningham could transition seamlessly into a 4-3 as an outside linebacker. He has the strength to go up against any offensive lineman, and the quickness to roam from side to side. He’s not the biggest player, but Zach Cunningham is a football player. A football player that any NFL team would be lucky to have.
All clips were taken from draftbreakdown.com