Zach Cunningham didn’t join the Eagles until August. Nicholas Morrow didn’t even make the initial 53-man roster.
But the two Eagles veterans have formed an unlikely linebacker duo for a team with serious Super Bowl aspirations.
“Yeah, that’s crazy,” Cunningham said this week. “I’m not going to lie. I haven’t thought about it. We haven’t talked about it.
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“You see stuff like that happen in the league. Guys are in and out and you never know how it’s going to shake. It was like a natural transition. It was a whirlwind and all that but it was natural as well.”
Cunningham and Morrow are both 28 and have both been in the NFL since 2017. That experience hasn’t just helped them acclimate in Philly or helped them learn to play together. It has also allowed them to not be shocked by anything that happens.
So even though the Eagles went into this season expecting 2022 third-round pick Nakobe Dean to be the centerpiece of the linebacking corps, Cunningham and Morrow have been around long enough to know that crazy things happen in the NFL.
And now that Dean is back on IR after Lisfranc surgery, the Eagles will turn to their unlikely duo for the second half of the 2023 season.
“It’s just the NFL to me, man,” Morrow said. “You never know what’s going to happen once the season starts. You just kind of go through it and figure it out. That’s the NFL. You never know who’s going to play coming down the stretch because of injuries or whatever the case may be.”
Despite entering the NFL in the same season, the Eagles’ two starting linebackers didn’t know each other until August. The Eagles signed Cunningham and Myles Jack on Aug. 6. And even though it was Jack who got the early first-team reps, Cunningham eventually began to separate himself.
During training camp, the Eagles rotated a ton at the linebacker position so Cunningham and Morrow got plenty of time together to start building that rapport. And they got even more time when Dean suffered his first foot injury in the opener and went on IR. From that time, Morrow took over as the starting MIKE linebacker and Cunningham kept his job as the WILL.
What has allowed them to mesh together so well?
“I think it’s just the experience,” practice squad linebacker Ben VanSumeren said. “I know Zach got here late in training camp but he’s a plug-and-play guy. He was just ready from the time he got here. I think it’s just from the amount of reps these guys have had.”
Cunningham and Morrow have played a combined 178 games with 134 starts in the NFL for five different teams. That experience shows up.
“It’s apparent,” VanSumeren said. “You can sit in one meeting with those guys and you can tell they’ve been in the league for a while.”
Back in the summer, it was clear that the Eagles needed some help at the linebacker position so it wasn’t a surprise when they signed a couple of veterans in Cunningham and Jack on one-year deals. Early on, it was Jack who got a lot of the attention and even got first-team reps from the jump. But Jack lasted just a couple weeks until deciding to retire.
Three months later, Cunningham is still a starter. He’s thankful things worked out in Philly and he’s glad he signed here.
“I went from sitting at home playing Call of Duty,” Cunningham said, “and then I get the call and the day later I’m out there on the field doing drills.”
Cunningham said there was an acclimation period for him after his arrival in Philly but he really began to feel like he was a part of the defense during the preseason games. He looked pretty natural on the field in those games.
And it was Morrow, as the veteran in the room, who really helped ease Cunningham’s transition.
“It’s been pretty cool,” Cunningham said. “Since I got here, he’s just been helping me learn the defense and getting acclimated to everything. As we’ve played together, we’re starting to gel a lot more on the field as far as communication and being able to play off each other’s strengths. I feel like we’ve gotten much better at that as the season has gone on.”
Both Morrow and Cunningham are playing on one-year deals in 2023 and lead a linebacker room that is extremely small. The only other pure off-ball linebacker on the 53-man roster is special teamer Christian Elliss.
Morrow said he and Cunningham are pretty similar personality-wise. He admitted Cunningham is a little funnier than him but proclaimed himself to be “undercover funny.” The two take their craft seriously but enjoy cracking jokes in the meeting room run by linebackers coach D.J. Eliot.
And even though they didn’t know each other before becoming teammates, Cunningham and Morrow have bonded over being from the state of Alabama.
“I think personality-wise, we fit together pretty well,” Morrow said.
But it’s not like things have been easy for Morrow either. While Cunningham began the season as the Eagles’ starting WILL linebacker, Morrow began the season on the practice squad.
After starting every game for the Bears last season, Morrow didn’t even make the Eagles initial 53-man roster, something he admitted was “irritating” when it happened. But Morrow is a former undrafted free agent who has had to fight for everything in his NFL career.
So fighting his way off the practice squad in 2023 was nothing new.
“Man, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder,” Morrow said. “I played Division 3 football. I played seven games of varsity football in high school because the coach wanted to play his son. It’s nothing new. It’s just been my career. I just find a way to make it.”
Find a way to make it. That seems like the Eagles’ yearly plan at linebacker. It’s a position they tend not to sink significant resources into. This year, the plan was to have Dean as their top starter. They used the 83rd overall pick on Dean out of Georgia last season and after a redshirt season behind T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White — who both left in free agency. The 2023 season was supposed to be Dean’s time.
Instead, he’s been hurt and is on the shelf again after surgery.
So the Eagles are going to rely on their unlikely duo the rest of the way.
“My heart goes out to him,” Morrow said. “But at the same time, we have to find a way to be successful as a team and we’ll figure it out. I enjoy being around Zach and playing next to him.”