INDIANAPOLIS — Being overlooked is nothing new to Zach Cunningham.
After winning Alabama's State 5A Lineman of the Year award in 2012 — in a campaign in which he had 194 tackles, 41 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks — the Crimson Tide decided to pass on Cunningham, who at the time didn't quite fit the frame of a typical big-time college defensive lineman.
So Cunningham instead took his talents to Vanderbilt, and three years later, after being redshirted, he turned into one of the most talented playmaking linebackers in the Southeastern Conference.
The Indianapolis Colts are certainly in need of some quality playmaking in the middle of their defense, and NESN's Nicholas Goss believes Cunningham could be just that guy, as he has the Colts taking Cunningham in the first round of his most recent mock draft, which you can find by clicking here.
The "overlooked" theme is currently still somewhat in Cunningham's corner, however, as he is yet to earn an overall grade on NFL.com's draft profiles. So why could the Colts be enticed to take a guy like Cunningham? Here's his overview:*
"Alabama may have overlooked Cunningham in the recruiting process due to his lean frame (he had 194 tackles, 41 for loss, 12 sacks as the state's 5A Lineman of the Year in 2012), but NFL scouts won't. He started the final five games of the year for the Commodores as a redshirt freshman (67 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1.5), and then starting the final nine in 2015, eventually leading the team in tackles for loss (16.5) and forced fumbles (four) in a first-team All-SEC effort. Cunningham led Vandy with 125 tackles in another first-team all-conference season, with 16.5 tackles for loss. He also garnered first-team Associated Press All-American honors as a junior, proving his explosion on the national college football scene."*
Now that's production.
In fact, Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo wrote before last season that Cunningham was the best college linebacker "you haven't heard of:"
"With a strong showing as a redshirt sophomore, Cunningham has already attracted the NFL's attention, it's now time to take the next step in his game," Palazzolo said. "He's flashed range and play-making ability in coverage, and improving his play recognition will put him in position to make even more plays. Cunningham is a willing run defender, capable of taking on and defeating blocks, but he must improve his tackling and ability to finish plays. If he can continue to progress, Cunningham heads into the 2016 season as a potential All-American candidate and NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on his development whether he comes out this year or in 2017."
When looking at the inside linebacker position for the Colts heading into 2017, the team actually hopes to have quite a bit of continuity as it goes into the offseason.
Only one inside linebacker, Josh McNary, is expected set to become a restricted free agent, and the team returns veteran starter D'Qwell Jackson, as well as Edwin Jackson (who started eight games for Indianapolis in 2016) and 2016 fourth-round draft pick Antonio Morrison (who started four games in Jackson's place towards the end of the season), as well as guys like Deon King and Luke Rhodes, who played as undrafted rookies last season.
One thing's for sure: new Colts general manager Chris Ballard puts a premium on defense, which was the Kansas City Chiefs' hallmark the past few seasons with Ballard playing a major role in personnel decisions. So unsung, productive guys like Cunningham could fit right in with what Ballard is looking for.
"Defense wins championships," Ballard said in his introductory press conference. "I know you have to score points, but I've been blessed to be in this league to work for two places where we've been pretty special on defense – Chicago and Kansas City. That definitely is a priority and that's probably why I have such respect for Chuck (Pagano) because he is a defensive head coach. But don't get me wrong, we have to score points, we have to have weapons."
The analysis from those producing content on Colts.com does not necessarily represent the thoughts of the Indianapolis Colts organization. Any conjecture, analysis or opinions formed by Colts.com content creators is not based on inside knowledge gained from team officials, players or staff.