They did it, the Tennessee Titans actually managed to get the most productive linebacker of 2020 in Zach Cunningham. Now what?
Any time you can take one of the most productive players from a division rival and add them to a position of need on your own roster, it is hard to call it anything other than a win. Especially when the Tennessee Titans are only going to pay him around $300,000 for the rest of the season.
So far this season, David Long (4), Rashaan Evans (5), Jayon Brown (5), and Monty Rice (2) have combined to miss 16 games this season and Rice is done for the year.
From his rookie year in 2017 through 2020 Zach Cunningham has played in 62 out of 64 games. If nothing else, Cunningham is a resilient and tough linebacker who can be a consistent contributor in the middle of the defense which is something that the Titans desperately need.
Now that we have established that he can stay on the field and be productive (he was the NFL’s leading tackler in 2020), now the question is where does he fit once he is up to speed on defense?
What can Cunningham do for the Tennessee Titans?
Cunningham is really solid in every area, but I had a conversation with Matt Weston on Twitter and he explained why he was great in previous years but why he doesn’t fit what the Houston Texans want to do now.
Essentially, Cunningham looked his best when he was behind a stacked defensive line and beside a linebacker who can anchor on the front/strong side. That job was previously occupied by Benardrick McKinney.
The Tennessee Titans think they have that in Rashaan Evans, but I don’t think that is his best partner on defense.
Based on everything we have seen this year, the best linebacker duo would be David Long and Cunningham with Long as the strong-side linebacker.
Now, David Long is listed at 5-foot-11, 227 lbs. which is a far cry from the oversized McKinney who is listed at 6-foot-4, 257 lb. However, there is a great argument that no linebacker on the Titans roster can get outside of blockers and set the edge better than Long.
The best way to think about Cunningham’s fit on the Tennessee Titans defense is to go back to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense last year.
Tampa Bay was comfortable with two fast-flowing, lighter linebackers because their defensive front was huge outside of their pass rush sub-packages. The front-four of Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, and Ndamukong Suh’s average height and weight is 6-foot-3.75 inches, 296 lbs.
For comparison, when the Tennessee Titans are using one of their favorite fronts (excluding obvious passing downs) of Denico Autry, Jeffery Simmons, Teair Tart, and Harold Landry their average height and weight are 6-foot-3.25 inches, 287 lbs.
(Note: If you replace Tart with Naquan Jones, that average is nearly identical to the Bucs front at 6-foot-3.75 inches and 295 lbs.)
A defense like this gives you sideline-to-sideline linebackers who can help limit the explosive plays in the run game while also increasing the chances of the backside linebacker making splash plays like tackles for no gain or tackles for loss.
Going forward, that is the type of defense that Shane Bowen seems to be cultivating thanks to Jon Robinson finding those smaller more athletic linebackers later in the draft. Remember, Rashaan Evans was drafted when the defense was being built for Dean Pees so it makes sense that he looks the least like the other linebackers in the room.
Cunningham is a run and chase linebacker who can thrive next to someone like David Long where the pair can take turns knifing into the backfield and racking up tackles for loss.
There is a chance that this isn’t just a Band-Aid fix at the linebacker position and with young talents like David Long and Monty Rice on rookie deals, you could argue that the Titans can afford to let Evans and Brown walk this offseason and invest a little bit of money in Cunningham to lead this linebacker core in the future.
Given the coaching staff’s experience with Cunningham, fans should be hoping that he works out like previous additions from the Texans like Ben Jones, MyCole Pruitt, and David Quessenberry and not like the Jadeveon Clowney fiasco.