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Titans Claim Linebacker off Waivers

Zach Cunningham led the NFL in tackles last season but the Houston Texans released him this week for reported disciplinary issues.

NASHVILLE -- In need of bolstering their inside linebacker position, the Tennessee Titans have added the NFL’s leading tackler from the 2020 season.

The Titans claimed Zach Cunningham off waivers from the Houston Texans on Thursday, reuniting him with head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Shane Bowen. Vrabel was the Texans’ defensive coordinator during Cunningham’s rookie season in 2017, while Bowen was one of Houston’s defensive assistants.

A second-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt, Cunningham made a splash right away, starting 13 of 16 games and totaling 90 tackles, five tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, six passes defended and 1.5 sacks as a rook.

He’s topped 100 tackles in each of the past three seasons, including 2020, when Cunningham led the NFL with 164 combined tackles and 106 solo tackles. In 10 games this season, including seven starts, Cunningham totaled 67 tackles, four tackles for loss and three passes defended.

The Texans placed him on waivers earlier this week due to disciplinary issues. Cunningham reportedly missed a COVID-19 testing, and had been late to meetings this season. He was benched last Sunday against Indianapolis.

“I have no idea what’s really going on (in Houston),” Bowen said Thursday, prior to the Titans adding Cunningham. “But I know when he came in, I just remember an instinctive football player. Going against him, he’s always been instinctive and found the football. A Vandy kid, too, right? He was a good kid when I was there.”

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The Titans are returning from a bye week this Sunday, but are still having health issues at inside linebacker.

David Long, in the midst of a breakout season, has missed four straight games with a hamstring injury and has not yet returned to practice. Rashaan Evans just returned to practice this week after missing five straight contests with an ankle injury. Jayon Brown has played in seven of the Titans’ 12 games, including the last two. In addition, Bowen indicated Thursday that rookie Monty Rice, who suffered an ankle injury last Sunday against New England, is done for the season.

“It seems like we haven’t gone through the season with the same two guys in there,” Bowen said. “I’m sure there’s been a few games. But I think it’s a credit to (inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett), and it’s a credit to that room. Those guys have been able to step up and play when their number has been called and execute and win some games for us, from Dylan (Cole) to Monty when he had to play against Indy and some of those other games.

“It’s good to get Rashaan back out here moving around. It’s good to get Jayon. I thought Jayon fought through something for us last week. He was banged up a little bit and he was fighting. Then we’ll kind of see where David is at as this thing goes as well. I was obviously excited about where he was before he got injured. It’s good to get those guys back out there.”

Cunningham has three more years on his contract after this season, per Spotrac, and is scheduled to count $10.5 million against the cap in 2022, $11.5 million in 2023 and $13 million in 2024.

However, Cunningham’s 2022 contract is only guaranteed for injury at present, per Spotrac. So if things didn’t work out between the Titans and Cunningham at the end of this year, the team could still release him and get off the hook for his contract. The contract wouldn’t become fully guaranteed until March of 2022, per Spotrac.