Derek Barnett

Tennessee’s 2017 NFL Draft Presence a Return to Normalcy

In every season but two between 1939 and 2014, the Tennessee Volunteers had at least one football player taken in the NFL Draft.

The Vols dubiously doubled that number in the past two years, as zero players were taken by NFL teams. Again, we should take this opportunity to thank Derek Dooley for the 47,457th time.

So, when six Vols were plucked in the 2017 NFL Draft that just ended this afternoon, it felt like everything was right with the world. Led by living legend Derek Barnett—who was taken 14th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles—and highlighted by a fourth round that saw three Vols taken Saturday, it was a glorious showing for head coach Butch Jones and a testament to the turnaround in Knoxville.

You may (rightfully) be bristling at how things turned out on the field during a frustrating 9-4 2016 season, but there’s no question Jones’ recruiting is putting Tennessee in position to be successful once again.

Jones told GoVols247’s Wes Rucker in part on Saturday afternoon:

I know today is all about their players and their families, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment and just kind of reflect and talk about this being a great weekend for Tennessee football. It’s a great weekend for all of our players. They’ve done such a great job of not only representing their personal brands, but also the great brand of Tennessee. Obviously we’re very proud and excited for them—and not only them, but their families, as well.

There are plenty of reasons for Tennessee to be concerned after moving on from such a vaunted group of guys, but given that this is really Jones’ first class of NFL recruits, it’s also a reason to be excited about the future. Obviously, Jones and his staff is doing a good job evaluating players, and though the past couple of classes haven’t been as highly rated as the first two, there are plenty of prospects brewing in Knoxville.

Guys such as receiver Jauan Jennings, running back John Kelly, linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and defensive end Jonathan Kongbo look like quality NFL prospects. The quarterback duo of Jarrett Guarantano and Quinten Dormady could evolve, too, and though the Vols don’t look to have a class as highly regarded as this year’s on the horizon any time soon, they have a smattering of talented players who could turn into elite pro players.

The most worrisome thing for Tennessee is next year doesn’t look like a big one on the prospects horizon. FOXSports.com’s way-too-early look at a 2018 mock draft features no Vols [unless you count Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson]… The Vols need players to develop and emerge who can keep this momentum going and keep having this pro angle selling point for prospects.

If Tennessee can just tread water in what should be a transition year in 2017—think eight or nine wins—the ’18 and ’19 classes are already off to exceptional starts, and this newly refurbished coaching staff looks like it can do some damage on the trail.

Plus, a showing like the past three days can play extremely well in living rooms. This is how Tennessee football is supposed to represent on draft day. And this isn’t just frilly window dressing, either. These are ideal situations for all players who were taken.

  • When you’re taken in the first round, 14th overall, you aren’t expected to ride the bench. Barnett won’t, and he is primed to have a great career in a city that fits his personality. We all remember the Nashville native abusing tackles, getting in extra pushes and slings on quarterbacks after the whistle and playing with a chip on his shoulder. For a gritty, abrasive fan base in Philly, Eagles fans will absolutely adore him. Barnett is big, mean and [most importantly] a really, really good football player. He’s an ideal fit in the NFC East and especially in the blue-collar city of Philadelphia.
  • Though the New Orleans Saints signed Adrian Peterson to go along with All-Pro running back Mark Ingram, who is just now coming into his own in the Big Easy, Alvin Kamara is the future at the position. It isn’t an ideal depth chart situation, but from a situational standpoint, there are fewer great fits than Kamara’s game and head coach Sean Payton’s scheme. This is, after all, the coach who helped turn Darren Sproles into a star, and Kamara’s game fits here. He’ll catch passes out of the backfield, probably play some special teams and gradually ease into some touches for the Saints. Eventually, it’ll be his backfield.
  • When it comes to NFL franchises, few [if any] are better-run than the Pittsburgh Steelers, and so for Cameron Sutton to land there is terrific. He could win that starting nickelback role as a rookie, and that’s a really good spot for the former UT shutdown cornerback. He may not have the speed to play boundary corner in the NFL, but going to a Steelers franchise that always puts a quality product on the field will be a great deal for Sutton. He will play a lot as a first-year player and could wind up a star in the Steel City.
  • The Detroit Lions desperately needed linebackers entering the draft and went a long way toward addressing those needs with the second-round pick of Florida’s Jarrad Davis then coming right back with Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the fourth round. JRM dealt with significant injuries in Knoxville, as we all know, but he was wildly productive when he was healthy. He isn’t the same kind of linebacker as Davis, but the duo are complimentary of each other. He’ll contribute right away, and his ability to help on special teams will be a big deal on the next level, too. JRM has an ideal opportunity to step right into the rotation as a rookie.
  • Josh Malone was taken in the fourth round by the Cincinnati Bengals, and he will provide some much-needed speed and playmaking ability to a team needing difference-makers on offense. Cincy plucked Washington speedster John Ross in the first round and added controversial Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, whose pick prompted a Cincy television station to call for a Bengals boycott. Those two picks proved the Bengals need speed on that side of the ball, and so does the Malone pick. Along with A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell, Ross and Malone should slide in and get immediate reps. There’s, again, opportunity to play.
  • The most ideal situation for perhaps any Vol not named Barnett in the draft came when quarterback Joshua Dobbs was taken by the Steelers with the 135th overall selection, the same spot where the Cowboys took Dak Prescott last year, a player to which Dobbs has been often compared. With Ben Roethlisberger getting up in age and with backup signal-caller Landry Jones’ inefficiencies, Dobbs has a golden opportunity to step right in and slide into the No. 2 quarterback role. If that happens, he’ll almost certainly get some game reps, because Big Ben gets hurt every year due to his reckless play. If Dobbs progresses the way he could, that could be his job in two or three years, and the Steelers are always set up to win big right now. It’s just that type of franchise. Also, having a familiar face like Sutton around won’t hurt, and Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin has been around UT’s program a few times in the past couple of years.

So, not only was this weekend big for the Vols, it has the opportunity to keep paying dividends over the next few years as Jones begins his next round of pitches to prospects saying, “You could be the next Dobbs” or “We plan to use you like Alvin Kamara.” He’s already made that pitch this year to running back commitment Jashaun Corbin, and it will only continue.

Jones is right. The past few days were great to be a Tennessee Vol, and it will breed new Vols in the future. Now, if UT can only break through with some more prominent steps on the football field in the wake of Jones’ first strong NFL Draft class, the program can keep this momentum going.

That may be a big “if,” but this first group certainly did their part on the field, and they were rewarded handsomely in the draft.

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