Four Thoughts on Texans ILB Zach Cunningham's Gigantic Contract Extension

Zach Cunningham is now one of the highest paid inside linebackers in the NFL.
Zach Cunningham is now one of the highest paid inside linebackers in the NFL.
Photo by Eric Sauseda
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It's been general knowledge for some time now that the Houston Texans and general manager Bill O'Brien have had two big action items to check off their list before the start of the 2020 NFL regular season — sign Deshaun Watson to a contract extension AND sign linebacker Zach Cunningham to a contract extension. On Sunday, they accomplished one of those two things. Granted, it's probably not the action item that will more significantly reduce anxiety levels among Texan fans, but still, it was a significant day.

As first reported by Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Cunningham's contract extension got done this weekend:

In all, it's a four-year, $58 million extension, with $32.5 million guaranteed for injury. That's a nice pay day for the team's 2017 second round draft choice, and a deal that should age well for the Texans, considering that Cunningham is durable — he's missed just two games in his career — and has room to grow as a player. A few more thoughts on what is hopefully the team's second to last contract extension handed out this offseason.

The O'Brien trend of rewarding "DTS" continues
Bill O'Brien has gone out of his way to make the "Dependable, Tough, Smart" mantra a big part of the Texans' brand, up to and including workout T-shirts with said slogan for players and coaches. He's abbreviated it down to "DTS", and undoubtedly Cunningham is a player who embodies that culture O'Brien is trying to embed in this team. This particular extension lines up similarly to those handed down to Whitney Mercilus ($13 million per year) and Nick Martin ($11 million per year) a year ago. It will be interesting to see if O'Brien, who is not really getting any sort of hometown discount on these deals, can continue to lock up young players on second contracts long term.

Bernardrick McKinney's days in Houston may be numbered
The Cunningham extension comes two years after fellow inside linebacker Bernardrick McKinney inked a five year, $50 million extension himself. McKinney is only in the second season of that extension, and the next three seasons (2021-2023) carry very little dead money. My point is that it will be tough to carry two players on big contracts at a position that is somewhat de-prioritized in today's NFL. I would be mildly surprised if McKinney is still on this roster in 2021, and I'd be shocked if he were still here in 2022, when Watson's eventual extension likely kicks in. Also, keep in mind, the salary cap is likely to go DOWN next season due to revenue shortfalls as a result of the coronavirus keeping fans out of the stadium on game day.

Looking back, inside linebacker might be this franchise's strongest position historically
Now, it should be noted that McKinney did make a Pro Bowl a couple seasons ago, and he's been a solid player for this football team. In fact, with Cunningham getting paid, it's a reminder that inside linebacker in recent seasons has become one of the more productive positions for this team. Brian Cushing gave the Texans several good (at times, great) seasons, and DeMeco Ryans is one of the best players and leaders in the history of the franchise. To me, it's between inside linebacker and wide receiver (largely, or entirely really, on the backs of Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins) as the best positions in the history of the franchise.

It's Deshaun's turn now
So now attention turns to the franchise quarterback. Can the Texans get a deal done with Watson before the start of this season, an occurrence which would at least make Texans fans more comfortable about the future trajectory of this team, and comfortable with the attachment that the quarterback has to the head coach/general manager. The deal will likely eclipse $40 million annually, and will make it much more difficult to hand out deals in the future like the one Cunningham signed on Sunday.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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