The AFC South appears wide open heading into the 2019 season in the National Football League. The margin is so narrow that a breakout season from a single player could mean the difference between first-round bye and narrowly missing the playoffs.
Previously, I profiled why I believe Indianapolis Colts’ running back Marlon Mack is due for a third-year breakout. Here, we will take a look at some other candidates from the AFC South. I have highlighted one player from each team that I believe will have a major impact in 2019.
The Houston Texans‘ 2017 draft class has already seen one major breakout in quarterback Deshaun Watson. The next man up is off-ball linebacker, Zach Cunningham. While he had a very respectable second-season, the former Vanderbilt Commodore possesses the athleticism to reach another level of play. He is a potential boon for the defending AFC South champions.
Despite missing two games due to injury, Cunningham still led the Texans in tackles in 2018 with 92. That’s the foundation of his game. He’s a stout run defender that has sideline-to-sideline range. Those abilities allow him to stay on the field in every personnel package. A sentiment echoed last season by Bill O’Brien:
“Zach is a four-down linebacker,” O’Brien said. “He can play on first, second and third down, and then he’s one of our better special-teams players.”
Where I think Cunningham still has room to grow is in coverage. The former Vanderbilt Commodore has the speed to make a bigger impact in the passing game. He struggled a bit allowing an 81.1% ( per PFF, subscription required) completion rate last season. However, he did well to limit the damage to just 9.1 yards per reception. Thus far, he has only registered one career interception (but, boy did he make it count) and 5 pass breakups. If he can get his hands on more footballs, Houston may have yet another Pro Bowler on its already incredible front seven.