LB Zach Cunningham has chance to be rare Vanderbilt 1st-round pick

Zach Cunningham
Donny J. Crowe/via Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt has had just nine first-round picks in history, and Commodores linebacker Zach Cunningham could be No. 10 later this month.

Vandy has had just two first-round picks in the past 30 years – offensive tackle Chris Williams in 2008 and quarterback Jay Cutler in ’06. And Vandy hasn’t had a defensive player selected in the first round since cornerback Leonard Coleman in 1984. Cunningham, though, could change all that.

He is not a lock first-rounder, but he has a chance to be selected in the latter portion of the round.

Offensive tackle Will Holden seems likely to be drafted on the third day; it would be just the ninth time since 1990 that at least two Vandy players were selected in the same draft.

An aside: One Vanderbilt first-rounder was Charley Horton, a two-way back who was selected 11th overall by the Rams in 1956. He never played a down in the NFL; he owed the Navy two years of service from his time in the Navy ROTC at Vandy, then played in the CFL for a season. Horton later became a college referee and was the back judge in the 1979 Gator Bowl (the final game for Ohio State coach Woody Hayes because he punched Clemson’s Charlie Baumann), in 1980 for Herschel Walker’s first college game and the Fiesta Bowl following the 1986 season (when Penn State upset top-ranked Miami for the national title).

Here’s a look at the positions where Vanderbilt alums have fared well – and not so well – in the NFL.

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This year’s potential draftees (in rough order of when they can be expected to come off the board): LB Zach Cunningham, OT Will Holden.

The Commodores are: “Defensive Back U.” Admittedly, it’s a short list. But cornerback Casey Hayward finished atop the NFL’s interception list with seven for the San Diego Chargers, one of just three SEC products to accomplish that in the past 10 seasons. And Andre Hal is becoming a solid starter for the Houston Texans. Commodores defensive backs Corey Chavous and Corey Harris have had productive NFL careers in relatively recent years.

Next in line: The well has run dry the past few seasons, but in the 1990s and 2000s, the Commodores supplied a steady stream of linebackers to the NFL: Jamie Duncan, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Sheldon Quarles and Jamie Winborn, to name four, put together sustained careers in the NFL. Look for Cunningham to revitalize that tradition beginning in 2017.

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Not so much: Tight end. Since 1960, former Vanderbilt tight ends have combined to start a grand total of 17 NFL games. Of those, former Buccaneers/Jaguars/Redskins tight end Todd Yoder started 14 games from 2000-09, and Allama Matthews started three games for the Atlanta Falcons from 1983-85.

Over the years: Not many quarterbacks (just two, in fact) have gone from Vanderbilt to start in the NFL, but when they do, there seems to be an unwritten rule that they wind up with the Chicago Bears. That’s what has happened with Jay Cutler, far and away the best-known Commodore of the 21st century, and it’s what happened with Bill Wade, who was the first overall pick in the 1952 NFL draft, by the Los Angeles Rams. Wade had an up-and-down career in L.A. before joining the Bears in 1961. He then went on to win the NFL championship in 1963, the highlight of his 13-year career.

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