With uncertainty surrounding Zach Brown’s future with the Buffalo Bills, they should be eyeing Zach Cunningham in the draft.
The Buffalo Bills will be switching to a 4-3 defense next season and although it will likely do wonders for this defense, it will take some shifting around to work. The biggest obstacle will be figuring out what to do with the linebacker corps.
If the Bills can’t agree to a contract with Zach Brown, then they have an option that would fit perfectly — Zach Cunningham.
Cunningham will be targeted by any team looking for a productive tackler that has the skill to be a weak-side linebacker. He would bring the same type of play as Zach Brown, but with a taller frame at 6’4” — three inches taller than Brown.
Coming out of Vanderbilt, Cunningham found a lot of success as a football magnet. Last season, he finished with 125 tackles, including the Camping World Independence Bowl. He added 2 forced fumbles and 3 passes defensed. The tackles come in bunches, too. In 7 games last season, he finished with 10+ tackles, including a 19-tackle performance vs. Georgia and 14-tackle performance vs. Florida.
In a game vs. Auburn, Zach Cunningham had one of the best defensive plays of the year when he jumped over the center to block a field goal. Here’s how it was explained by Cunningham himself, according to SEC Country:
"“At the end of the game, it happened that that situation came up. I just went to the sideline and told my coach, ‘They have this cadence. Am I able to do this?’ They said yeah, and I went for it.”"
You can take a look at the play here:
He has also received praise from Pro Football Focus, who titled him “the best LB you haven’t heard of.” Well, it’s about time you’ve heard of him.
Projected as a mid-late first rounder, the Buffalo Bills would likely have to trade for a first round pick to consider him. With the 10th pick, I’m sure there will be better options for Buffalo that early. When you look at what Cunningham brings to the table, he would be worth the trade.
His tall frame will help him read plays easily with his downhill approach, which is ideal for 4-3 defenses. Mix that in with his long strides and speed, you get a smart linebacker that can run from sideline to sideline with ease. Being quick to the ball helps him be a productive tackler and a threat with the pass rush.
Excellent footwork helps him weave around blockers, finding gaps to stop plays for a loss. Other traits he brings are durability, good in man coverage, ability to cause fumbles and value on special teams.
As for his weaknesses, here’s what NFL.com had to say:
"Angular build with high waist and skinny legs. Lack of power in his lower body creates issues with contact balance for him. Plays behind his shoulder rather than behind his hands in take-on situations. Can get entangled against size and slow to disengage. Doesn’t have play strength to fight past angle blocks once they land. Will need to work to keep shoulders squared in his attack. Leveraging his gap and standing his ground could be a challenge. Not a banger or a bend-and-strike finisher. Tends to attack ball carriers up high rather than down low and will slide off of too many would-be tackles."
As of right now, it’s still unclear how the 4-3 defense will translate with the linebackers. The Bills currently have Reggie Ragland, Preston Brown and Ramon Humber to control that part of the field, although Humber is more of a depth player.
Brown and Ragland are similar in their play and will have big roles next season, but the Bills will need a linebacker that can move from sideline to sideline quickly and act as a football magnet. We saw that type of play from Zach Brown last season, filling in for the injured Ragland all year.
Switching to a 4-3 defense, Zach Brown would find the same success he saw last year. He finished the season with 147 tackles (second in the league) and even had a few big plays at the Pro Bowl. Re-signing him should be a priority for the Buffalo Bills, but might not be possible with the cap space they have. Zach Brown has earned a good paycheck and he’ll get it with the Bills or not.
If Zach Brown ends up playing for a different team next season, Zach Cunningham could help fill the hole he leaves.