After being shut out of the previous few NFL Drafts in an historic drought, the Vols broke through in a big way in 2017. Headlined by first-rounder Derek Barnett to the Eagles, a total of six Volunteers were drafted. In addition, two other prominent seniors in tight end Jason Croom (Buffalo Bills) and defensive end Latroy Lewis (Oakland Raiders) were signed to UDFA contracts, and since then cornerback Malik Foreman has signed with the New Orleans Saints.
This is a big deal for Butch Jones, as this was his first senior/draft-eligible junior class to be up for the NFL Draft. The lack of Vols drafted has certainly been used against Butch and Tennessee on the recruiting trail, and frankly there was not much Jones could say or really do about it. The success he’s had in dramatically upgrading the talent on the Vols roster in the face of this is even more astounding.
As it should have, the UT football program made a very big deal on social media and with recruits about the results of the 2017 NFL Draft. You’ve already heard 2018 running back recruits talk about being “the next Alvin Kamara” and more than one defensive end prospect talk about how Derek Barnett is his role model. And of course Josh Dobbs an official Torchbearer and an ambassador of the program due to both his on and off the field exploits – he should be a role model that Butch holds up when recruiting similarly academic-minded prospects.
But while getting guys drafted is a big deal, the performances of your NFL alumni, especially guys newly in the League, can be leveraged even more. And if the first week of the NFL Preseason is any indication there is going to be a lot to promote starting this season.
Obviously when your first-round pick dominates in his NFL debut to the tune of two sacks that’s going to generate a ton of headlines, and that’s exactly what Derek Barnett did. But Kamara showed out as well as the starter for the Saints, and Josh Malone scored a touchdown in his debut with the Bengals. Dobbs made a highly-publicized start for the Steelers, and he settled in after a rough start and showed that he’s got the tools to be an NFL QB. Jalen Reeves-Maybin led the Lions in tackles in his debut, and LaTroy Lewis looks highly likely to make the Raiders’ active roster after a very good camp and a two-sack opening night of his own.
Coming off back-to-back nine-win and Top 25 seasons and with three bowl wins in a row, Butch and Tennessee have a lot to sell on the recruiting trail in terms of being a blue-chip program back on the rise after a relatively brief drop during the tenure of [REDACTED]. But in the end, what kids want is to make it to the NFL, and before this season no matter how good of a salesman Butch was, he didn’t have that to sell. As schools like Alabama and Ohio State and Florida State show you, selling on-field success and a platform to the NFL are linked, as of course the programs with the most future NFL talent are the ones consistently competing for national championships. The good news is that now Butch CAN sell the NFL dream as well as an improved program. And with some 2017 seniors and several potential NFL early-entrants (who you never want to lose but are the sign of a team stocked with talent) he should have more to sell next summer as well. We should expect him to sell the heck out of it starting immediately and it should start to yield results beginning with the 2018 class.
2017 seniors with the best chances of being drafted
- TE Ethan Wolf
- OL Jashon Robertson
- OL Brett Kendrick
- CB Justin Martin
- CB Shaq Wiggins
- S Todd Kelly
2017 potential early entrants
- RB John Kelly
- WR Jauan Jennings
- DL Kahlil McKenzie
- DL Shy Tuttle
- DL Jonathan Kongbo
- LB Darren Kirkland Jr