Zach Cunningham has justified the Texans' investment in him, establishing himself as a big-play, every-down linebacker.
Signed to a four-year, $58 million contract extension last year that included $33.754 million guaranteed, Cunningham led the NFL in tackles with 164 stops and also recorded three sacks and seven tackles for losses after getting off to a slow start last season that included a few missed tackles.
On a bad defense, Cunningham was one of the few bright spots.
New Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith has coached Hall of Fame linebackers Brian Urlacher and Derrick Brooks and other standouts, including Hardy Nickerson, Lance Briggs and Lavonte David.
In Cunningham, an athletic 6-foot-3, 238-pound former second-round draft pick from Vanderbilt, Smith sees vast potential.
"Well, I've been blessed with my career to be around great linebackers," Smith said. "We know what the great ones look like. Zach Cunningham has a chance to be talked about the same way. What I saw from his video is it seems like wherever the ball is he's there. He's an impact player. He's ideal for what we're going to do defensively. I can't wait to see him live."
Heading into his fifth NFL season, Cunningham already has 503 career tackles, 22 for losses, 6 1/2 sacks and four forced fumbles. He played 85 percent (945 overall) of the Texans' defensive snaps last season.
The Texans envision a versatile role for Cunningham as a leader for their conversion from a 3-4 alignment to Smith's traditional 4-3 defense.
"Just talking about linebacker in general, you want a guy that’s going to be around the football quite a bit," Smith said. "We don’t have to reinvent that with Zach. He knows how to get around the football. I just know in our system, history tells you a lot, we’ve had some special players that play his position specifically. He’ll have an opportunity to blitz.
"He’s an excellent blitzer, I think. We talked about tackling. The other part of his game that I’m anxious to see him take another step in is the pass part of it. We’re always talking about taking the ball away as an interceptor, zone coverage. He’s still a young football player and I know he’s a football guy, so we’re just anxious to get it here and be able to really work with him full-time.”
The Texans restructured Cunningham's contract during the offseason, lowering his salary-cap figure from $11.4 million to $5.67 million by converting his $8.5 million fully guaranteed base salary into a $7.51 million signing bonus and lowered his salary to $990,000 to add $5.63 million in salary cap space last season.
Cunningham was paid a $12 million signing bonus last year.
As the Texans' new coaching staff starts working with Cunningham, they aren't placing any ceiling on his abilities and skills. They're confident in him while acknowledging he can keep getting better.
“We've had a lot of great linebackers in our system," said Texans linebackers coach Miles Smith, Lovie Smith's son. "Zach has all the talent that any of those other guys have had. Again, I’m not trying to pump him up too much or anything like that but I think he has shown that he has the talent. He’s played great ball in the past and I think it’s our job as coaches to help him reach his full potential. His full potential, he could be as good of a linebacker as anybody out there.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128