Could Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham, not Reuben Foster, be the best SEC linebacker in the draft?

Mar 4, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA;  Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham speaks to the media during the 2017 combine at Indiana Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

For the past year, Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster has been firmly in the spotlight.

As one of the veteran leaders on the Crimson Tide’s incredible defense, the senior played a big role in helping his team reach the College Football Playoff National Championship Game for the second straight season. His stat sheet – 115 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss and five sacks – proved that his play was every bit as valuable as his experience on the field.

Foster is considered one of the best defensive players in this year’s draft class, but at this weekend’s NFL Combine, the spotlight was on him for the wrong reasons. After a tense exchange with a hospital worker, while waiting to be evaluated, Foster was dismissed from the Combine before getting the chance to meet with teams or perform that many on-field drills.

Through his agent, Foster sent an apology to all 32 NFL teams and invited them to meet with him one day prior to Alabama’s Pro Day to ask him any questions, but this is still something that no player wants to deal with as the draft approaches.

Meanwhile, there is another SEC linebacker who has quietly continued to perform at the highest level. He has nowhere near the same national name recognition that Foster does, but the teams that faced Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham are well aware of the type of impact he can have during games.

Cunningham was easily one of the best defensive players in a conference that included Myles Garrett, Jonathan Allen, Jamal Adams and Foster. The Vanderbilt linebacker led the SEC with 125 tackles, which were 10 more than Foster, despite playing in two less games, and had 16.5 tackles for a loss en route to becoming the first unanimous All-American in school history.

Cunningham didn’t have near the talent surrounding him that Foster enjoyed at Alabama, either. Instead of playing alongside former 5-star prospects, Cunningham’s teammates weren’t the type of recruits that elite programs courted.

In typical fashion, the 6-foot-3, 234-pound Cunningham quietly put together one of the best Combine workouts of the linebackers and defensive linemen who were evaluated on Sunday afternoon. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, faster than Alabama’s Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams, and jumped 35 inches in the vertical jump and 128 inches in the broad jump.

Cunningham’s performance showcased the explosive versatility that he displayed during his career with the Commodores. Additionally, there are no off-field issues surrounding Cunningham as the draft approaches. This is a player who quietly goes about his business and produces at a very high level.

CBS Sports’ draft expert Rob Rang recently compared Cunningham to All-Pro Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson.

“It is hard not to remember a young Johnson at Texas when watching Cunningham, who possesses a similar rangy frame, speed and nose for the ball,” Rang wrote. “Like the Chiefs’ 12-year veteran, Cunningham possesses Pro Bowl potential with the skill-set to translate into the 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.”

NFL teams are well aware of what Cunningham can do and his versatility makes him attractive in today’s game, even if he is considered to be a little smaller than a typical linebacker.

While Foster is an excellent player in his own right, and has proven as much against the very best competition, Cunningham is a linebacker with the same level of production, a tremendous reputation and greater versatility.

As the spotlight continues to shine brightly on Foster, it’s the subdued star from Vanderbilt who has asserted himself as the SEC’s best linebacker in this draft.

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COMMENTS

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  • No, not a chance. Rueben will be a top ten pick, while Zach will be lucky to go in the top 50.

  • Cunningham is a great player but he was it for the Vandy defense. Foster was surrounded by great talent and still managed to stand out. It’s not easy to build those great stats as a LB when everyone else is just as good as you are.

  • I would take Cunningham over Foster. He is longer and quicker. He would be a great weak-side linebacker where he can just go out there and fly around. Plus Cunningham made the best two plays in the SEC last year. Hurdling the AU line to block the FG, and stopping Georgia on 4th down. Foster may have had better reads and tackles for the year, but Cunningham has a better instinct for the game and can run sideline to sideline.