Second-year player looks to be more physical
Sporting a thicker beard, Zach Cunningham no longer resembles the fresh-faced rookie who made his NFL debut in 2017.
More beard, more brawn
After building up his body following months of stalking the Texans’ weight room (not to mention cafeteria), he clearly means business heading into his second season. Whether it’s beard or brawn, Cunningham is going all in on maturity. Weighing 229 pounds in his rookie year, he claims to have gained 11 pounds. While his game is built on speed and instincts, Cunningham felt that gaining size would help him become a more physical player when it comes to stopping the run.
One impressive youngster
After impressing as a rookie, the second-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt has quickly established himself as one of the defense’s best young contributors. The one-time All-Southeastern Conference selection ranked second on the team in tackles in 2007 behind fellow linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Cunningham racked up 90 tackles, as well as five tackles for a loss, one forced fumble, six passes defended, and 1 1/2 sacks.
Missing his muse
As Cunningham has been dedicating his time to training, he’s had little time for his other passion: music. Playing the guitar is something that he’s looking forward to return to during his downtime. All players have interests that they use as an outlet when away from the game, and music is one of the things that many NFL players enjoy. So is playing games, such as video games like Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite. There are still those fond of more traditional games such as playing cards, however. Pasianssi (aka solitaire) is a particularly popular choice for when players are looking to spend some time on their own. The game can be played online at pasianssi.com, is a fantastic source of entertainment, and can really help to lift the mood. Cunningham even may be tempted to try his luck at the game during the off-season; if he can be pried away from his guitar, that is.
Filling a void
When Cunningham came in as a rookie, he was given the opportunity to start at inside linebacker, filling a void created by Brian Cushing’s suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. The Texans decided to cut ties with Cushing in the offseason, instead moving forward with the pairing of Cunningham and McKinney. The latter recently signed a $50mn contract extension.
1-2 draft punch
Cushing’s release was a vote of confidence for the player who was considered one of the Texans’ two excellent 2017 draft picks, including first-round pick Deshaun Watson. Cunningham didn’t look anything like the raw player he was last year. He showed up and got to work quickly, proving himself as a force in the middle of the Texans’ D. He saved his best for last, recording a season-high 11 tackles in a week 17 loss to the Colts. Fellow linebacker Whitney Mercilus said that he was impressed with Cunningham’s side-to-side movement and ability to reach the ball, and that he’s looking for him to take the next step.
Bernardrick in supporting role
McKinney aside, Cunningham noted how Bernardrick was the player who stuck by him, helped him to learn the defensive scheme and just generally adjust to the speed of the NFL. He’s still looking at becoming a better player, however, working on a number of things, such as the mental part of the game and recognition. Whether all of the extra work will pay off remains to be seen.
Cunningham was used in a versatile role in his first season. He mainly lined up inside. He rushed outside the tackles. He was durable and tough. He played in all 16 games, 13 as a starter.
At Vanderbilt, Cunningham accumulated 295 tackles and 39 1/2 for a loss before deciding to declare for the draft after his junior season. His production as a professional has been similar while working alongside his mentor, McKinney.