When we speak of late season impact additions for contending teams, we usually think of high impact players that already possess an important roster spot or role on the team.
Important players — whether they’re stars or important glue guys at a specific position — that are returning from injury, reliable options on either side of the ball returning from some sort of wacky suspension or ban, these are the sort of puzzle pieces you’d expect to make an appearance and provide some juice for a team in the middle of a stretch run right?
Those two situations have always been the norm for these types of scenarios.
But every so often, we’re faced with new twists and turns pertaining to the situational transaction game within the NFL. Odell Beckham Jr., high profile talented receiver, gets released by the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the season and opts to join the Super Bowl contending Los Angeles Rams. Cam Newton, who was literally sitting on his couch after being cut by the New England Patriots in training camp, pulled a stunner and returned for one last ride with the Carolina Panthers.
You’re starting to get the idea right?
These unexpected, seismical moves — although Beckham Jr.’s move to Los Angeles is looking like the only one that’ll pay dividends — have somewhat taken the league by storm, and have the potential to create key differences in the race towards the postseason.
For the Tennessee Titans, their unexpected outside transaction didn’t come in the form of some flashy skill player, but instead, it came in the form of a physical presence on the defensive side of the ball that could positively impact this team right now, and potentially in the future as well.
The mystery player being described is of course Zach Cunningham, a physical presence at inside linebacker that the Titans miraculously found a way to scoop off of waivers last week.
If you’ve witnessed the watchable aspect of Texans football over the last couple of seasons, you should know what the Titans will be getting in Cunningham. A physical, hard nose linebacker that plays his best when running downhill and using his quickness to shed blocks and eventually make stops. He can also provide some form of coverage because his athleticism is so supreme for his position, but that area of his game isn’t the strongest.
Regardless of his shortcomings in coverage, Cunningham still brings a lot to the table. With the Titans already boasting one of the league’s most improved units defensively, a move like this stands to prove as more of a luxury transaction than one of actual need.
Either way, the Titans adding Cunningham to the fold only boosts their depth and overall talent level, something I’m sure Mike Vrabel and the rest of his staff won’t be upset about.
However, as exciting and intriguing this situation might be, questions are now circulating regarding Cunningham’s potential role on this team moving forward. For a linebacker as decorated as Cunningham, you’d assume he’d immediately slide in as a depth linebacker only playing situational snaps for now, then eventually taking over one of the starting inside linebacker spots on Shane Bowen’s defense.
Especially since Cunningham has been coached by Mike Vrabel before and has experience playing in the scheme that this Titans staff likes to run defensively.
But that’s the thing, we have no idea what sort of role Cunningham will have once Vrabel and his staff deems him ready to play.
“As far as a role [for Cunningham] I wouldn’t be able to tell you right now,” Vrabel said on Monday.
One problem with this situation ties back to the fact that Cunningham’s addition is more of a luxury than an actual need. When healthy, David Long Jr. obviously takes one of the starting inside linebacker spots. He’s earned it with his play so far this season, so there shouldn’t be any controversy between Cunningham’s addition and Long Jr.’s starting spot on defense.
Attention then turns towards the second spot, a spot where the Titans have used an abundance of players specifically because of health and maybe even performance issues.
Rashaan Evans was manning the other inside linebacker spot before he got hurt, and he returned as one of the starters once after a long injury absence this past Sunday. Jayon Brown took a hold of the other starting inside linebacker spot, but that was primarily because Long Jr. still remains out due to a hamstring injury he suffered in week nine against the Los Angeles Rams.
Once he returns, Long Jr. will certainly be inserted back into the starting lineup, where the Titans have appreciated his downhill style as a run defender and his respectable coverage skills. With Brown out of the picture, Evans stands as the other option at inside linebacker, but could he be supplanted by Cunningham as we approach the end of the regular season?
It’d be hard to envision a scenario like that, not only because Cunningham is arriving to join the thick of things so late into the season, but also due to the fact that Evans has played some really good football dating back to the Titans’ rollercoaster win over the Buffalo Bills.
Now Cunningham’s impact doesn’t have to strictly come as a base starting inside linebacker.
He could be used as an extra blitzer in certain situations, or even an extra athletic body for the Titans in the red zone, it’s just hard to pinpoint where he’ll consistently play and if he’ll begin to receive significant snaps as the regular season approaches its conclusion.
With all that in mind, do you really think Cunningham would garner starting snaps on defense unless Evans’ play falls off a cliff, or injuries come back to haunt the position again?
You’d have to say no right?
If that ended up being the case, how would the Titans utilize his talents? Maybe he could be a situational run defending linebacker that plays more early down snaps? But with Evans’ top skill being a downhill, physical linebacker — as well as Long Jr.’s — would that plan make any sense for the Titans?
Well, maybe Cunningham could be used as an extra coverage linebacker on obvious passing downs. But considering the Titans’ love for extra defensive backs instead of linebackers on passing downs, something like that sounds even more unlikely.
So where does that leave Cunningham in terms of snaps and potential impact? Special teams is the likeliest of all routes, and that line of thinking is only proven further after Vrabel’s endorsement of Cunningham’s special teams ability on Monday.
Other than that though, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly he’s going to be doing, how much he’s going to be doing it, and when he’ll begin to start doing it. We’ll get our first set of answers when the Titans take on the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend though, so we won’t have to wait too long to draw preliminary conclusions pertaining to Cunningham’s potential role on this team.