NEW DEAL FOR CUNNINGHAM

Texans and ILB Zach Cunningham agree to contract extension

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty images

A little over a week ago, Zach Cunningham wore a blue Nike cut-off shirt that read, "H-TOWN," and featured a muscular Toro flexing behind Houston's skyline to his media availability. During his post-practice interview, the 25-year-old inside linebacker stated that he was not worried about his pending contract extension when asked by a local reporter.

As the head coach and general manager, the question emerged following Bill O'Brien's comment, that he wants to keep Cunningham a member of the Houston Texans for a long time. Ten days later, both O'Brien and Cunningham no longer have to wait to meet their aspiration.

Sunday afternoon, Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero of NFL Network reported that the Texans and Cunningham have agreed to a four-year extension worth $58 million, $23.5 million fully guaranteed. With $14.5 million per year, Cunningham's new deal places him as the tenth highest paid linebacker in the league — overtaking Jaguars' Myles Jack at $14.2 million per year.

"We want Zach on our team. We want Zach to be a Texan for a long time, no doubt about it," O'Brien said. "He's just a really good player. He's very instinctive. He's got good speed. He can do a lot of different things within our scheme. Really good guy. Same guy every day. We think that it would be great if he was with us for a long time."

After the Texans selected the Vanderbilt prodigy in the second round (No. 57 overall) in 2017, Cunningham has made significant strives over the past three seasons. While recording a career-high 2.0 sacks, Cunningham came close to receiving his first Pro-Bowl selection after leading the AFC in total tackles (142) during the 2019 season. But that was under Houston's old Defensive Coordinator, Romeo Crennel.

As he enters his fourth season, Cunningham's game has the opportunity to take another huge step playing under current D.C. Anthony Weaver. The new defensive schemes set in place by Weaver will capitalize on Cunningham's ability to stop the run — in which he led all linebackers with a 14.2 run-stop percentage in 2019. Cunningham says one of his top goals this season is to make "more plays" in pass coverage.

"Zach Cunningham is a guy who day in and day out just gets the job done and makes plays that always leave you shaking your head a little bit. You're like, 'how did he make that play?'" — Weaver said.

With one of their top defensive talents taken care of, it is time for the Texans to turn their contract talks to franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson. It may not be as big of a deal as Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, but rest assured the Texans and Watson will break the bank.

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Framber Valdez injured his ring finger on Tuesday. Composite image by Jack Brame.

That sure escalated quickly. The news on Framber Valdez went from bad to vastly worse for the Astros with the fractured ring finger on his pitching hand concerning enough that season ending surgery is on the radar. Valdez is/was no sure thing to have been a first time quality full season starting pitcher, but seemed a decent bet after his maturity-driven albeit short season breakout 2020.

37-year-old Zack Greinke is the only member of the Astros' starting rotation to have thrown even 130 innings in a big league season. Greinke showed notable slippage in 2020. A by-product of the funky short season, or Father Time making a move? If Greinke further erodes, uh oh. It's all question marks behind him.

Lance McCullers got to the big leagues in 2015. Six years later McCullers has zero seasons under his belt in which he both pitched well and stayed healthy. If he hits that exacta in 2021 it's great for the Astros of course, greater for McCullers with free agency arriving at season's end. Particularly confounding with McCullers is that over his career he's been outstanding at Minute Maid Park, and basically sucked on the road. Career earned run average at MMP: 2.51. Career ERA everywhere else: 4.99. That's absurd. It's certainly not as if MMP is some great pitchers' park.

"Crafty" is typically applied to left-handed pitchers. Jose Urquidy seems a crafty right-hander. But since missing the 2017 season recovering from Tommy John surgery Urquidy has topped 100 innings worked once. Cristian Javier has some electric stuff and showed very well as a rookie. Javier has never thrown 115 innings in a professional season.

The odds are long against McCullers, Urquidy, and Javier all pitching well and staying healthy all season. Valdez didn't come close to making it to Opening Day. The best internal candidates to replace Framber (or anyone else) are Luis Garcia and the extremely-hyped thus far dud but still just 23 years old Forrest Whitley.

Woeful Rockets

It certainly isn't paying homage to James Harden that has the Rockets on a 13 game losing streak as they mercifully take their All-Star break. They're just that bad. Watching them is like watching a helpless fly tossed into a spider web game after game. Out of the break the Rockets play at Sacramento Thursday. The Kings are no good, but the Rockets are worse. A loss there all but guarantees matching the Houston Rockets' longest ever losing streak of 15 since the following night they play at Utah. If you care about them the Rockets are painful to watch. Hapless, helpless, hopeless. Their best shot at accelerating what might be a years long path back to relevance is to keep on stinking. The Rockets have the third worst record in the NBA. The three worst teams have equal chances at getting picks one through four in the draft. It's a 14 percent shot at number one, a 52 percent shot of being in the top four. The fourth worst team has a 48 percent chance of picking in the top four. If the Rockets are not in the top four, they lose their pick to Oklahoma City as a payoff of the awful Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade.

Watt signs with Cardinals

J.J. Watt could have least acknowledged "Of course the money the Cardinals offered had plenty to do with me picking them!" Off an 8-8 season in which they faded down the stretch the Cards have an interesting squad with some serious upside, especially if Kyler Murray makes a leap in his third season at quarterback. But no way are the Cardinals presently a first tier Super Bowl contender. We don't know for certain who Watt's other "finalists" were and what they offered. Seems a lock that none of them offered 23 million dollars guaranteed or two years 31 million total. Money is another scoreboard and J.J. is a huge winner on it. No one should ever blame a player for going for every dollar he can get. But Watt can't honestly say the best shot at a Super Bowl was his top priority then sign with a team which last had a winning season in 2015 and in Kliff Kingsbury has a guy who has accomplished nothing meaningful as a Head Coach at either Texas Tech or Arizona. Doesn't mean it can't happen in the desert, but there had to be better teams interested if a ring shot was of paramount importance.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Les Miles, what a slimeball. LSU, what a slimy institution in its handling of serial sexual misconduct in its football program

2. NBA All-Star Game Sunday. In 1993 more than 22 million people watched. Last year, 6.8 million. Not sure 5 mil watch Sunday.

3. Greatest ever NFL free agent signings: Bronze-Packers, Reggie White Silver-Buccaneers, Tom Brady Gold-Saints, Drew Brees

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