It is one month from the 2017 NFL draft. In 31 days there will be 29 teams (the Rams, Vikings and Patriots don’t have picks) selecting 32 players in the first round.
The New York Giants will pick 23rd overall on the first day of a three-day extravaganza where they are scheduled to make seven selections, one in each round of the draft. The first of the seven is the most important as it produces the greatest chance of finding a starter and/or Pro Bowler.
With the draft fast approaching, let’s put a prediction (subject to change) in print:
With the 23rd overall selection in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, the New York Giants select … Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham.
But my pick for the Giants, after talking with sources in and around the league, is Cunningham, even with all four options available. I'm basing this off the fact he's a player they like and who has attracted their interest. Jerry Reese was even at the Vanderbilt Pro Day recently, which is a curious stop for the Giants' general manager.
Immediately some of you are thinking, Come on, a linebacker? The Giants never draft a linebacker in the first round! Understandable. It has been 33 years since the Giants drafted Carl Banks with the third overall pick in 1984, the last time they selected a linebacker in the first round.
But it’s not like they haven’t been willing or able. The Giants wanted linebacker Leonard Floyd last year, except the Bears jumped them after an extraordinary string of events (which included a gas-mask-bong video that sent Laremy Tunsil plummeting). They also would have seriously contemplated C.J. Mosley in the 2014 draft had Odell Beckham Jr. and Zack Martin not been on the board.
A linebacker in the first round isn’t anywhere near as absurd as many seem to believe, especially when it comes to Cunningham. He has the length, athleticism and production the Giants covet. He can be a difference-maker at weakside linebacker with his skill set and versatility.
Pros: Cunningham is a rangy (6-foot-3 ½, 234 pounds) athlete who runs well and makes plays. He earned unanimous All-America recognition after finishing with an SEC-leading 125 tackles, including 16.5 for a loss. He compiled 285 total tackles and was durable and productive during his three years at Vanderbilt.
According to Scouts Inc., he has excellent range against the run. He covers sideline-to-sideline with impressive change of direction, and his long stride serves him well. But this is the part of the report that likely gets the Giants excited about Cunningham's prospects:
3rd down capabilities: 1 (exceptional)
Plenty of range in underneath zone coverage. Gets quality depth and reads quarterback's eyes well to get into throwing lanes. Athleticism to carry TEs and slot WRs down the field. Shows good patience collecting RBs in man coverage and shows enough athleticism to limit separation. ... Above-average closing burst and has the length to finish. Awareness to look for the strip when able to get home.
Cons: Cunningham could benefit from adding bulk. He doesn’t always play with tremendous strength. This shows up in his tackling. According to Scouts Inc., he doesn't always tackle with power. He's an average tackler in part because he's "a little high at times entering contact." Cunningham needs to improve his leverage.
Overall, he’s the three-down linebacker who can take the Giants defense to the next level over the next few years.