The lowly Houston Texans sent shockwaves around the league on Wednesday morning. According to multiple reports, the Texans have released stud linebacker Zach Cunningham, and the former Vanderbilt standout will now be exposed to waivers. The 27-year-old Cunningham led the entire league in tackles a year ago with an astounding 164 takedowns.
General manager Nick Caserio continues to put his stamp on the team. Part of that process includes letting go of players that are considered holdovers from the previous regime. Cunningham was awarded a hefty four-year, $58 million extension by former head coach and acting general manager Bill O'Brien.
There are allegedly some disciplinary reasons linked to why Houston decided to move on from Cunningham at this juncture, and predicting whether or not he'll get claimed on waivers is a difficult process. On one hand, a claiming team would inherit just a $275,000 cap hit for the remainder of the season, and Cunningham's current contract contains no regular guarantees for 2022. That makes adding Cunningham to the fold a potentially intriguing move for a playoff contender. On the other hand, Cunningham's contract does include a $10 million injury protection guarantee for 2022, and any claiming team would be taking on significant risk. That hang-up in Cunningham's contract leads some to believe the linebacker will actually clear through waivers, voiding his current contract and freeing him to negotiate a brand-new deal with any team of his choosing.
Here are three teams that should be interested in securing Cunningham's services.
The 7-5 Bengals are hanging onto a playoff wild-card spot in the AFC by a loose thread. Sunday's embarrassing 41-22 defeat at the hands of the fellow wild-card contender Los Angeles Chargers was a disheartening display. Starting quarterback Joe Burrow appeared to have suffered a debilitating finger injury that will be of great concern going forward.
The Bengals have enjoyed a successful season by their standards so far but must do everything within their power to stave off a late-season letdown. They are currently ravaged by injury at the linebacker position. Standout linebacker Logan Wilson recently suffered a serious shoulder injury that is likely to cost him multiple games going forward, per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. Wilson has totaled an impressive 92 tackles and four interceptions in 2021 and will be missed greatly as Cincinnati attempts to put a stamp on what's been a surprisingly effective season by earning a playoff berth. Fellow linebacker Markus Bailey is also dealing with an injury that leaves Cincinnati's current linebacker depth in the gutter.
Cincinnati is one of few teams that should strongly consider submitting a claim for Cunningham. Should they be awarded him via the waiver process, Cunningham would immediately step into their starting lineup for what's about to be a crucial stretch that contains several inner-conference contests.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has been uncharacteristically aggressive in his pursuit of improvement. Gutekunst has already added a pair of high-profile defenders in-season in the form of Whitney Mercilus and Jaylon Smith. Neither signing worked out, with Mercilus landing on season-ending injured reserve shortly after joining the Packers and Smith being swiftly released after failing to impress.
Neither failure necessarily means Gutekunst will suddenly become gun-shy when mulling over Cunningham's availability. The Packers find themselves in an immediate window to compete for Super Bowl LVI and the addition of Smith signaled their need to upgrade the linebacker position.
Reinforcements are on the way as the surging Packers prepare for a playoff run. Star cornerback Jaire Alexander recently returned to practice and indications are that David Bakhtiari and Za’Darius Smith are not far behind. Green Bay is getting stronger as the postseason nears and a move for Cunningham will be considered. With franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers possibly playing elsewhere in 2022, Green Bay could have the financial flexibility to inherit Cunningham's current contract.
There's an element of familiarity here. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel served as Cunningham's defensive coordinator in Houston back in 2017 and has always been complimentary of his abilities. The Titans have experienced more injuries than any other team in the league throughout 2021, and the inside linebacker position has particularly suffered. David Long Jr. and Rashaan Evans have missed several games as of late, and third-round rookie Monty Rice recently landed on injured reserve. Tennessee has entered recent games with just two or three healthy linebackers on the roster.
The Titans are unlikely to claim Cunningham, given the $10 million injury guarantee we thoroughly explored in the introduction of this article, however. Tennessee can’t afford to be on the hook for such a large chunk of money next season given some of their other financial commitments. But should Cunningham go unclaimed and find himself able to negotiate a new contract with a team of his choosing from scratch, Tennessee would likely be high on his list due to several reasons, including his relationship and experience with Vrabel.