The Houston Texans shocked the footballing world by releasing linebacker Zach Cunningham on Wednesday morning. Tennessee Titans fans immediately took to Twitter and other forms of social media to express their interest in witnessing Tennessee add Cunningham to the fold. On the surface, it’s easy to understand why. The Pinson, Alabama native is somewhat considered a local hero after a successful and lengthy showing at Vanderbilt University. The 27-year-old Cunnigham has had a relatively successful career since trading Nashville for Houston, and led the NFL in tackles a year ago with an astounding 164 takedowns.
Since Cunningham was released after the trade deadline, he’ll now be subject to the waivers claim process. Tennessee ranks fairly low in the waiver order due to their 8-4 record, which could suggest they would likely be outbid by a team that possesses a better standing in the current order. Any claiming team would inherit Cunningham’s current contract, which is not an issue for the remainder of 2021. Said claiming team would inherit just a $275,000 cap hit for the remainder of the season, and Cunningham’s current contract contains no guarantees for 2022. Sounds good, right? Cunningham is actually under contract through 2023. Houston’s previous regime awarded him with a four-year, $58 million extension which makes him due for an average salary of $14 million in each of the next three seasons.
But the Titans shouldn’t claim Cunningham and the reason why comes down to one very specific clause in his current contract. As affordable as the remainder of Cunningham’s 2021 deal is, his contract include a $10 million injury protection guarantee for next year. Cunningham may not be guaranteed any salary next season, but a hefty guarantee does kick in in case of injury. Based on Tennessee’s injury luck this year, that alone should give you pause! All kidding aside, the Titans can ill-afford to take such a risk. They are in a decent, but not excellent cap situation going forward. They can not possibly risk having Cunningham under contract for next season at such a large number. Extensions for Harold Landry, A.J. Brown and Jeffery Simmons are coming up quickly, and Tennessee needs to preserve their money for those three players in particular.
Should Cunningham claim waivers, the story changes. Cunningham’s current contract would essentially become null-and-void, eliminating the pricy injury protection hang-up that will likely keep Tennessee (and other teams too, possibly) from submitting a claim. Tennessee are banged up at the inside linebacker position. David Long Jr. and Rashaan Evans have each missed several games, and rookie third-round pick Monty Rice is now on injured reserve, and his season may be over. Cunningham has an excellent relationship with head coach Mike Vrabel based on their time spent together in 2017. Vrabel has always been complimentary of Cunnigham’s skill set, and by all accounts, Vrabel enjoyed serving has his defensive coordinator in 2017.
Should Cunningham clear waivers, and he very well may, Tennessee should absolutely have some interest in negotiating a fair market price deal for him for the remainder of 2021 and possibly beyond. But claiming him would be an exercise in insanity.