Some of the top NFL prospects come from the SEC and this year this year there will be no shortage with scouts drooling over LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Alabama DE Jonathan Allen and Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett. But one SEC linebacker is starting to climb up NFL draft boards even thought he’s not playing for a perennial contender in the league.
Quietly Vanderbilt has put a lot of guys in the NFL over the last few years. Jordan Matthews was a second round pick in 2016 and is the #1 receiver in Philadelphia. Casey Hayward has five interceptions for the Chargers this year and is a big part of their resurgence on defense this year. Another former Dore Spencer Pulley is also on the San Diego roster at center. Texans starting safety Andre Hal played in Nashville as well. Jay Cutler also came from Vanderbilt as well. He took the Bears to the NFL Championship Game in 2010 but has struggled with injuries over the years.
Now Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham will likely join them next Spring in the NFL Draft as a first round pick.
Last year the Commodore linebacker was First Team All-SEC as a redshirt sophomore and was third in the conference in tackles. This season Cunningham has turned it up a notch with spectacular plays all year. With two games to go he leads the SEC in tackles with 104 and a forced fumble.
Cunningham began turning heads earlier this year against Georgia when he stopped Isaiah McKenzie on 4th and 1 to seal a Vanderbilt upset win in Athens. Not only did he seal the victory against the Bulldogs on the road Cunningham was out of his mind with 19 tackles.
A few weeks later Cunningham took over the highlight reels again when he blocked and Auburn field goal to give the Commodores a chance late in the 4th quarter to pick up another win on the road.
The Vandy linebacker told coaches he noticed something about the snap count Auburn did when they attempted field goals while studying tape before the game.
Cunningham has not talked about the NFL Draft with the media so it’s not 100% certain he will forgo this senior year in 2017 to go pro. But if he is expected to be a first round pick it would be hard to turn down the money that comes with being picked so high. Fans in Nashville will have to keep their fingers crossed and hope Cunningham feels like he still has stuff to accomplish at Vanderbilt as a senior.
Many draft experts have him going in the first round, anywhere from pick 10-30. A lot of it depends on who else comes out and whether or not there is a run on a different position early in the draft that could cause him to slide. But when you look at all the teams that need help on defense like Green Bay and Cleveland that will pick at the top of the draft Cunningham could hear his name called sooner rather than later.