Cunningham, Holden have bright forecasts for upcoming NFL draft

Zach Cunningham (41) makes a tackle as Vanderbilt faced the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium Auburn, Al November 4, 2016. (Ziyi Liu/ The Vanderbilt Hustler)

In recent years, the Commodores have had little success with getting players drafted to NFL rosters, mostly due to a lack of talent overall.

In 2015, no ‘Dores were drafted, and 2016 saw just one player — outside linebacker Stephen Weatherly — picked, and even that did not come until the seventh round. Furthermore, the school has not seen one of its alumni picked in the first round of the draft since the Chicago Bears took offensive tackle Chris Williams 14th overall in 2008. This year, however, Vanderbilt boasts two bona fide NFL prospects in linebacker Zach Cunningham and offensive tackle Will Holden, both of whom will surely be selected during the April 27-29 draft.

Cunningham projects as one of the best defensive prospects that Vanderbilt has ever produced. The ‘Dores have not had a defensive player off the board in the first round since 1984, but Cunningham has a chance to break that drought. The junior linebacker just finished off one of the most accomplished careers in Vanderbilt’s history. In his third season, he led the SEC in tackles with 125, including 16.5 tackles for a loss, en route to earning All-SEC honors as well as becoming the first unanimous All-American in the Commodores’ history. That season included several defining moments that cemented his star status, including his 19-tackle performance against Georgia and the highlight-reel field goal block against Auburn.

As such, Cunningham has drawn significant interest from NFL teams needing help in the middle of the defense. Multiple mock drafts have the linebacker pegged as a first-round pick, including The Ringer writer Danny Kelly’s (27th overall to Kansas City), NFL.com writer Charley Casserly’s (24th overall to Oakland), and FoxSports.com writer Dieter Kurtenbach’s (22nd overall to Miami). The general consensus across all of the notable platforms has Cunningham projected as a late-first- to early-second-round pick.

“It’s been fun and stressful I’d say,” Cunningham said of the draft preparation process. “A mix of both.”

Cunningham fits the ideal mold for his position in the changing NFL. Defenses in today’s league need to be fast and versatile at the linebacker and safety positions. Players such as Tyrann Mathieu, Ryan Shazier and 2017 prospect Jabrill Peppers embody this shift in focus. In Cunningham, an NFL team will find a supremely quick and versatile player who has the potential to excel as either an inside 3-4 linebacker or an outside 4-3 guy. He also has the athletic ability to be a factor in pass coverage, which is becoming absolutely essential for a successful defense in the pass-happy NFL. Furthermore, if Cunningham can improve his technique as a pass-rusher, his natural burst off the line gives him the potential to become a truly complete player at the next level.

As for potential landing spots for Cunningham on draft day, a few notable ones come to mind. The first is the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 27 overall, as projected by The Ringer. Longtime star linebacker Derrick Johnson is 34 years old and coming off a late-season Achilles tear. Even if the potential future Hall of Famer can return to form for another season, the Chiefs need to start grooming someone else to take the reins of the defense. Cunningham possesses a similar frame and playing style to Johnson, and has already drawn comparisons to the 12-year pro from sites such as CBS.com.

Another potential spot for Cunningham is the Cincinnati Bengals at 41st overall. The Bengals are desperate for more athleticism at the linebacker position, and could definitely utilize Cunningham’s versatility to help return their defense to elite form.

Furthermore, Patriots head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick attended Cunningham’s pro day at Vanderbilt.

“I met with him [on pro day] in a film session, and just being in the same room as a guy that I watched growing up,” Cunningham said. “… It’s been a crazy experience for me.”

Given that the Patriots have since re-signed linebacker Dont’a Hightower, the position has become less of a glaring need, but New England could be a possible landing spot. The Patriots don’t have a pick until the third round as of now but have been known to make moves on draft day. If they like Cunningham enough, don’t be surprised to see them trade up.

Khari Blasingam (23) and Will Holden (74) as Vanderbilt defeated Middle Tennessee State with a final score of 47-24 at Vanderbilt Stadium, September 10, 2016.

As for Holden, the senior left tackle started 25 consecutive games at left tackle to end his career and had 34 total starts as a Commodore. He had drawn little NFL buzz until this season, but a late invitation to the Senior Bowl helped to get Holden the recognition needed to start climbing up draft boards.

“Obviously you hear chatter and things like that so … human nature it feels good, but I try to stay away from it as much as possible,” Holden said of his rapidly rising stock.

CBSSports.com now projects Holden as a third- or fourth-round selection, but given the relatively weak overall class at the tackle position, a team with a serious need for depth on the line could reach for Holden as early as the end of the third round. Should that happen, it would be the first time since 2008 that the Commodores had two players selected in the first three rounds.

Looking at the draft board, there is one destination in particular that stands out for Holden. The Seattle Seahawks have a compensatory selection at the end of the third round, No. 106 overall. The Seahawks’ troubles on the offensive line have been disastrous over the past couple of seasons, preventing the perennial contender from getting past the divisional round in each of the past two years.

According to NFL.com, “The first need should be left tackle and the second need should be right tackle.” That is how desperately this team needs help on the line, and Holden could provide some much needed relief.

Regardless of how the board plays out next week, you can expect both prospects to make an NFL roster next season and possibly even have serious roles out of the gate. Some success in the NFL from Vanderbilt alumni could help head coach Derek Mason attract some more high-level talents such as Cunningham and Holden in the future.

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