Fans, draft prognosticators, analysts of almost every stripe have been clamoring for Jerry Reese to select a linebacker in the first round for years now. Could 2017 be the year it finally happens? Depending on how the draft falls and the big board shakes out, it just might be.
In fact, that’s what Dan Kadar of Mocking The Draft is predicting in his latest mock draft.
23. New York Giants: Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
With Howard and Njoku gone, tight end might be out of the first round equation for New York. Then you have to weigh whether they grade Cunningham or Utah left tackle Garrett Bolles higher. Cunningham can be the middle linebacker the Giants have needed since Antonio Pierce was playing at a high level 10 years ago.
Raptor’s Take: I’m fine with this.
I disagree that Cunningham is a MIKE linebacker in the Giants’ scheme, but all in all, I’m fine with this. I think Cunningham would be a better player as a pro, behind the Giants’ formidable defensive line and with their fearsome secondary backing him up, than he was a college player. And that’s not to say that Cunningham was a poor college player — far from it.
I think he fits in well as a 3-down WILL linebacker for the Giants who can cover in space and come flying downhill to make plays in the run game.
Cunningham is a fine fallback option for the Giants, and I could see them passing on Bolles (though I think it more likely he goes stunningly high). He is still undersized and underpowered for the NFL, and close to the same age as Olivier Vernon when he came to the Giants as a free agent. Bolles might be a good player in the NFL, but at his age it might be a bit much to ask him to radically remodel his body or expect him to make strength gains his body can’t make.
If I’m going to offer alternatives (which I am, because it’s only right if I’m going to criticize the original mock), I think the Giants could go for Alabama offensive lineman Cam Robinson here. He isn’t in Dan’s mock, and he does have some concerning habits and inconsistencies. However, when he is on, he can take it to just about any defensive end out there and is a fitting bookend to Ereck Flowers as a run blocker. Their other option on the offensive side of the ball would be Western Kentucky lineman Forrest Lamp. Lamp gives them the versatility to play him at whatever position D.J. Fluker does not play, while also giving them insurance for Weston Richburg and Justin Pugh’s impending free agency.
If the Giants do go for a linebacker, they might look at Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt or Houston’s Tyus Bowser. Watt is pure upside, having only played defense for 18 months, but his injury history is concerning. Bowser is incredibly athletic and looks comfortable dropping into coverage, and has definite pass rush upside on top of already being a good rusher.
If there is one knock on Cunningham, it’s that he doesn’t have a resume as a pass rusher. The first round of the draft is about touchdowns. Either enabling your team to score them (by throwing them, catching them, or keeping the QB upright), or preventing the other team from scoring them (by sacking, hitting, or otherwise disrupting the quarterback, or stopping receivers from catching them). That is one area where players like Watt and Bowser have a decided edge over Cunningham — they’ve already proven they can sack the quarterback.
But, like I said to start: I’d be fine with Cunningham.