One year ago, the Texans rewarded Zach Cunningham with a four-year, $58 million contract extension that included $32.5 million guaranteed as he became one of the highest paid off-the-ball linebackers in the league and he led the NFL in tackles.
The Texans restructured his contract this offseason after general manager Nick Caserio was hired for salary-cap reasons as Cunningham's cap figure was reduced to $5.73 million.
Now, Cunningham's role on the field has been reduced.
Back from missing one game on the reserve-COVID-19 list as a high risk close contact of defensive tackle Ross Blacklock who tested positive for COVID, Cunningham played just 33 snaps (52 percent overall) on defense as a substitute Sunday during a 25-22 loss to the New England Patriots and had three tackles. Christian Kirksey and Kamu Grugier-Hill started at linebacker and played every snap. Kirksey leads the Texans with 41 tackles. Cunningham ranks second with 31 tackles in four games and three starts. And Grugier-Hill has 23 tackles, one sack and leads the team with five tackles for losses and is tied for second in the NFL in tackles for losses by off-the-ball linebackers behind Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano's six tackles for losses.
The Texans aren't as secure in Cunningham in pass coverage, which has never been his forte. The former second-round draft pick from Vanderbilt has excelled as a fast, run-stopping linebacker. Earlier this season against the Cleveland Browns, Cunningham didn't start and missed the first quarter for "disciplinary reasons," which stemmed from lateness issues. He missed a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for "personal reasons," as a no-show after not attending a practice session leading up to that August contest before rejoining the team two days later and getting back to work.
Now, Cunningham's on-field role is changing and that raises questions about his future. Will Cunningham regain his starting job? Will the Texans move on at some point? Could he be traded?
Cunningham is due remaining base salaries of $10 million, $11 million and $12.5 million in 2022, 2023 and 2022.
“His role has been for us, first and second down is where he’s most comfortable," Texans coach David Culley said Monday morning. "When we get into the nickel-type situations, we feel like the people that we bring in in those particular situations fit us better in pass defense. But he’s been doing well since he came back from the one game he didn’t play. He’s playing well. We need to be playing better. He’s a heck of a player, and expect more out of him as well as the other guys that are playing around him.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128