Detroit Lions’ Prospect Battle: Zach Cunningham versus Taco Charlton

Apr 28, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; A general view of the stage and podium before the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 28, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; A general view of the stage and podium before the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports /

With the 2017 NFL Draft one month away, mock drafts are being published seemingly everywhere. There is a clear consensus in these many mock drafts that the Detroit Lions are likely going to select a defensive player with the 21st overall pick, come April 27. Time will tell, though.

Two prospects who often come up for Detroit in mock drafts are Taco Charlton, defensive end from Michigan, and Zach Cunningham, linebacker out of Vanderbilt. According to Kent Lee Platte from Pride of Detroit, Charlton was the most mocked player to the Lions as of March 20 (37 times), while Cunningham was mocked a respectable 10 times.

Surely there have been many more mock drafts in the past week, and those numbers have only gone up. In fact, SideLion Report editor, Matt Urben, predicted Cunningham being selected by Detroit in our mock draft. Rob Rang of also has Cunningham mocked to the Lions. While Bucky Brooks and Chad Reuter of, as well as two other analysts, have Charlton to the Lions.

I thought it might be fun to compare these two prospects, and see which one would make more sense for the Lions if both players are still on the board at pick No. 21. It would have been too easy to compare players at the same position, so I wanted more of a challenge. The Lions need to add both a defensive end and a linebacker (or two) at some point in the draft. Which way they will go in the first round remains a mystery.

Tale of the Tape:

Taco Charlton:

College: Michigan

Draft Projection: First Round Draft Grade: 6.5

Height: 6-foot-6-inches

Weight: 277 lbs

40-yard Dash: 4.92 seconds

Bench Press (225 lbs): 25 reps

Vertical: 33 inches

Career Tackles: 91

Career Sacks: 19

Career Tackles for Loss: 28

Notable Accolades: First-team All-Big Ten (2016)

Fills an immediate need? Yes

Overview: Charlton is an extremely talented player, and scouts are well aware of that. Unfortunately, scouts are also well aware of his inconsistent play throughout his college career. He didn’t have a very impressive combine, either, with a slow 40-yard dash time and relatively average metrics in the other tests. What Charlton does bring is size and length. He is a polished pass rusher, who frequently makes athletic plays. There’s not really a question of skill with him, more a question of effort and consistency. He should be a sure-fire first rounder who could immediately contribute to whichever team drafts him. However, he still has plenty to work on.

Zach Cunningham:

College: Vanderbilt

Draft Projection: First Round Draft Grade: 5.94

Height: 6-foot-3-inches

Weight: 234 lbs

40-yard Dash: 4.67 seconds

Bench Press (225 lbs): 15 reps

Vertical: 35 inches (fifth among linebackers at the NFL Combine)

Career Tackles: 256

Career Sacks: 6

Career Tackles for Loss: 36

Notable Accolades: Unanimous first team All-American (2016), first team All-SEC (2015, 2016)

Fills an immediate need? Yes

Overview: Cunningham has a nose for the ball. He led the SEC in tackles in 2016 with 125, on his way to earning unanimous first-team All-American honors. He would be a nice fit right away at weak-side linebacker, or possibly middle linebacker, in a 4-3 defense (such as Detroit’s). Cunningham does have some question marks, though. Scouts worry about his lack of power in his lower body, as well as his ability to tackle NFL ball carriers. At Vanderbilt, he was essentially an every-down playmaker, but whether or not he can do that at the next level remains to be seen.

Who is the better fit for the Lions?

That is the question, isn’t it? Both players fit Detroit’s base 4-3 defensive scheme both players were playmakers for their respective collegiate teams and both players have first-round grades on them. Charlton’s draft grade is noticeably higher. Cunningham is by far the more consistent player, while Charlton will give the Lions the pass rushing specialist the team so desperately needs. Linebacker and defensive end are, without much argument, Detroit’s most pressing needs. If both of these players are still on the board, Jim Caldwell and Bob Quinn must determine which one is more crucial during the first round. Cunningham and Charlton are both good fits for the Lions.

My Take

While I can’t speak on what Detroit’s front office brass will do during the draft, I can give my personal, but somewhat educated, opinion. I would go with Charlton over Cunningham. The potential first round talent in this draft is loaded with defensive line gems. By pick No. 21, a majority of them will be gone. By the time Detroit has its second-round selection, all of them will be gone. Pairing Ziggy Ansah with Charlton should tremendously improve a defense that ranked 30th in sacks in 2016.

While Cunningham is an elite playmaker, I see him as more of an end of the first round/early second round talent. The Lions will still have options at linebacker in the second round. Raekwon McMillan of Ohio State, Jarrad Davis of Florida and Duke Riley of LSU all have second round grades on them (according to CBS Sports) and could be there for Detroit then. I say take the superior talent, and draft the defensive end first.

If both players are on the board in the first round, would you rather see Detroit take Cunningham, Charlton or somebody else entirely? Let me know in the comments.

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