Updated Oct. 20, 2016
By Charlie Campbell. Follow Charlie on Twitter @draftcampbell.
In the first half of the 2016 season, there have been some highly hyped linebackers, such as Florida's Jarrad Davis, Alabama's Reuben Foster, Ohio State's Raekwon McMillan, and Clemson's Ben Boulware. While some of them figure to be early-round picks, don't be surprised if Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham ends up going ahead of some and perhaps all of them. Sources say the Commodore inside linebackeris grading out as a late first-, early second-round pick with some NFL teams.
Teams were assigning that grade to Cunninghame even before last Saturday when he dominated Georgia to lead Vanderbilt to a shocking road victory. He had 19 tackles in that game, including a late fourth-quarter pass break-up on a third down and a stop for no gain on a fourth-and-1 to clinch the win for the Commodores. Currently, Cunningham is third in the nation with 81 tackles. He also has 13 for a loss, one pass batted and one forced fumble in 2016.
Scouts say they really love the skill set on the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder. He has length and strength. Teams are really impressed with his ability to take on and shed blocks. In the ground game, Cunningham is a fast and physical linebacker who is adept at reading his keys to get in position to make stops. Cunningham has shown good instincts with the speed and athleticism to play in pass coverage. Some sources compared Cunningham to the Texans' Bernardrick McKinney, who is playing very well early in his second year after being a high second-rounder in the 2015 NFL Draft. They felt that they were similar players, but Cunningham could be faster and more athletic.
As McKinney found out, it can be hard for inside linebackers to get drafted in the first round even if they grade out there. However, if Cunningham maintains his level of play and has a strong lead-up to the draft, he has a shot at being a Thursday night selection, as there are teams that feel he is worthy of a late first-round or early second-round pick.
A few weeks ago, WalterFootball.com was the first to report that Ohio State redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker was receiving high first-round grades for the 2017 NFL Draft. Sources from multiple teams are raving about Hooker and believe that he is a potential top-10 pick. Hooker isn't the only Buckeye defensive back who is held in such high regard. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Marshon Lattimore is also receiving high first-round grades, and sources from multiple teams are saying that Lattimore could be a top-16 pick if he declares for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Lattimore has 15 tackles, six passes broken up and three interceptions thus far in 2016. He has had some excellent games, including his performances against Tulsa and Oklahoma. Lattimore has been very good in coverage with the size to match up against big wideouts and the speed run with receivers downfield. The 6-foot, 192-pounder has teams excited about his skill set, and they believe that he is a future No. 1 cover corner in the NFL.
While teams are very excited about Lattimore and Hooker, sources say there are some rumors that one or both might return to Ohio State in 2017. That isn't uncommon this time of year, but late in the season, many players change their mind and decide to enter the draft. Lattimore and Hooker could hear their names called early on the opening night of the draft, and that can be very persuasive to getting players to leave early.
Going into the month of October, one wouldn't think that a defensive lineman with a total of 13 tackles, 1.5 for a loss, and zero sacks would be receiving high first-round grades. However, that is what's happening with Michigan State defensive lineman Malik McDowell. In speaking with team sources, some franchises have McDowell as a high first-round talent andthink he will go in the top 10 of the 2017 NFL Draft if he decides to declare.
Teams believe the 6-foot-6, 280-pounder has a lot of upside to develop. They feel that he is a better athlete and twitchier than DeForest Buckner or Arik Armstead, top-16 picks for San Francisco out of Oregon in the past two drafts. Sources say they are really impressed with McDowell's ability to bend and make the turn around the corner. They say he is hard to stop once he gets going with pass-rushing skills to go along with being good in the ground game.
Numerous Michigan State products are said to be well developed entering the next level, but McDowell is said to need a lot of work on his technique. However, sources from multiple teams don't hold that against McDowell and think he will get a lot better once he gets some development from NFL coaches.
McDowell isn't devoid of production. In 2015, he totaled 41 tackles with 13 for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a pick-six on the year. He had defensive end Shilique Calhoun helping to draw blocking attention last year. For the NFL, sources say that McDowell would fit best as a 3-4 defensive end. Scouts say that McDowell is too gifted to slide in the first round and they think he is a high first round talent who will be selected quickly on Thursday night.