All qualifiers about injury, fit, and professionalism aside, the 2013 class of tight end prospects could be the deepest I have ever seen. It would only be a mild surprise if three years from now there is a tight end from this group who becomes a valued contributor for an NFL team and began his career as a rookie free agent. A player who folks might be sleeping on is South Carolina’s Justice Cunningham.
His 2012 stats are modest: 23 catches, 324 yards, and no touchdowns. In fact, 2012’s yardage total exceeds his 2009-2011 output by 67 yards. He has only scored once in his career.
This is one example among many that illustrates why the box scores don’t reveal the depth and potential of a player. Cunningham has a lot of tools to become a valuable contributor in an NFL offense. At 6-4, 264 lbs., Cunningham is a good blocker in the running and passing game with room to get better. He has quick hands and feet, he delivers a punch, and he has the strength and effort to work on an island against future NFL-caliber athletes at linebacker and defensive end. This is where Cunningham has earned his scholarship for Steve Spurrier.
It’s the tight end’s receiving skills – an underutilized resource in Columbia, South Carolina – that could change in the NFL. I was going to show you a 29-yard reception on a wheel route versus LSU where he works between two zone defenders up the left sideline and makes a leaping grab then nearly scores with an athletic play up the sideline. It’s a display that I believe projects well to the NFL game.
A funny thing happened while searching for a better quality clip of this play to use here: I found better plays on the same highlight reel from the link above. The best one may well be the last, a seam route against Arkansas where the quarterback throws him open in the way Drew Brees loves to throw open his tight ends in New Orleans.
This play combines aspects of his game that I think makes him an underrated prospect: speed to stretch the seam, skill against tight coverage, and athleticism to adjust to the football with is back to the quarterback. Remember, Cunningham is a prospect unlikely to hear his name called in April any time before the late afternoon of the draft’s third day – if that. A few years down the line, this kind of skill could prove to be a great bargain compared to the likes of Tyler Eirfert, Zach Ertz, or Dion Sims.
South Carolina has a rep for being a pass-happy system under Steve Spurrier and it is true that the Ole’ Ball Coach is an aggressive play caller. At the same time, the Gamecocks employ a lot of 11 personnel and 12 personnel sets. Cunningham executes a nice hesitation just after his initial release to bait the linebacker into thinking this could be a cross or a hook underneath him.
There is no drumming of the arms, the head is down,and the hips are bent just enough along with the angle of his turn inside the hash that the linebacker stays on his toes to anticipate an underneath route from Cunningham. This is enough for the tight end to accelerate inside the linebacker and get 20 yards down field to make a play on the football.
As the ball arrives over his inside shoulder, Cunningham makes a full extension for the ball. His ability to to lay out and make this adjustment at the last moment is part and parcel of good NFL tight end play in the passing game. I also like the fact that he continues to run though the pass until the last second.
The best part of this play is not what I just showed you. A closer look from the red zone reveals a fuller dimension of what makes this an NFL-caliber reception.
Cunningham does a good job of reducing his shoulder just enough that the defender is forced to use his front arm to check the tight end down the field. It’s also what gives the tight end an opportunity to set up his break further inside with the ball in the air.
How do we know that Cunningham didn’t turn the wrong way or the quarterback threw the ball over the incorrect shoulder? We don’t without asking them, but based on the coverage where there is no safety over top, I think the quarterback knew to throw the receiver open and made the adjustment. I also think Cunningham set up this break inside with this initial turn. Even if I’m giving Cunningham too much credit, the fact that he’s athletic enough to make the adjustment you see ahead also projects well to the NFL.
As Cunningham completes his turn, the defender is caught in a position where he either has to turn back and lose ground to the tight end or continue to play the man and hope he can knock the ball away. It doesn’t help the linebacker that he chose to look straight up to track the ball, which will slow his stride down field and give Cunningham even more separation.
First down and much more – for the play from start to finish, here’s a link to where the play begins in the video. Cunningham isn’t fast, but I bet he’ll run as fast or faster time than a more heralded prospect like Michigan State’s Dion Sims – and I like Sims’ potential. It’s why the tight end depth has a chance to be crazy good for the 2013 class.
For more analysis of skill players like the post below, prepay for the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available April 1 for download. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. Get the 2012 RSP or other past issues for just $9.95 apiece. For a current list of players studied thus far for the 2013 publication, go here.