Tennessee Volunteers: Best NFL Prospects on the Team

Clint EilandAnalyst IMarch 27, 2012

Tennessee Volunteers: Best NFL Prospects on the Team

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    The National Football League and Tennessee are very familiar with each other, with a recorded 329 former and current players in the league. That's ranked seventh out of all colleges and No. 1 in the SEC. 

    As of late, Tennessee hasn't had the most productive draft years. For the upcoming draft, we only have two players trying out. Hopefully, they both find careers in the NFL.

    These next few years, however, will be full of players hailing from Rocky Top. I'm not just talking about free agency or late round picks though. (Not to knock any of them. Lest we forget, Arian Foster was a free agent.) I'm talking about first- and second-rounders that will make huge differences with teams immediately.

    Let's take a look on what Tennessee has in store for the National Football League in the future.

Honorable Mention

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    Curt Maggitt (LB)

    Having only played one year for the Vols, it was hard to include him into my actual list. We didn't really get a good chance to look at him. He still looks like a raw linebacker, but could certainly become a great player if coached correctly.

    His speed is what people need to look for, as he is able to shoot out to the sides and stop any screen or run plays. Look out for this guy in the coming years.

    Jacques Smith (DE)

    When you look at the tape for Smith, it is clear that he does have the tools to be a successful defensive lineman/outside linebacker. We aren't totally sure yet, because rumors are that current defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri might be switching to a 3-4 defense.

    Either way, Smith has great speed for someone his size and can shed blocks very well. He just needs to live up to potential. If he can do that, he will be a great mid-round steal in a couple of years.

Prentiss Waggner

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    Waggner has been looked at by scouts for quite some time now, and for good reason. Waggner is a playmaker and a reliable one at that. 

    In 2010 (when he was playing cornerback) Waggner racked up five interceptions, returning three of them for touchdowns. That was good enough for an FBS record for interceptions returned. Add that to three fumble recoveries, and Waggner had a total of eight takeaways. It was a sneak peak of his abilities for the Vols.

    The reason his 2011 season wasn't as good was because he got moved to the safety position after Brent Brewer was injured. It wasn't comfortable to him, which is why he regressed. He had only two interceptions and a forced fumble, which is actually kind of decent for a safety. Even though he didn't perform as well as he can, he is still ranked as one of the top safeties in next year's draft.

    Since the Volunteers have emerging players and will return guys from injuries, expect Waggner to move back to his natural cornerback position, where he belongs. Waggner will be entering his senior year, so he will want to impress the scouts looking at him. If he has near the season he did in 2010, he will achieve that goal.

    I expect Waggner to go around the third or fourth rounds. At best, he sneaks into the second round.

A.J. Johnson

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    If anything should be a testament to how good Johnson is, it's that he got inserted onto this list after one year. Needless to say, he exploded onto the scene for the Vols in 2011 and gave fans an exciting glimpse into the future.

    Vols fans are familiar with a man by the name of Eric Berry. What if I told you that Johnson has a great chance of being the second coming of Berry? While it may seem ridiculous at first (Berry wasn't even a linebacker), it isn't that hard to believe when you look at his tape and the stats. 

    With 80 tackles, had second-most stops by a true freshman in a season in UT history behind, guess who, Eric Berry. He was also the first true freshman to have three double figure tackle games, ahead of Berry. At Alabama last season, he acquired 13 tackles, the second most tackles by a true freshman in a game in Vols history. There are honestly too many to recite.

    In fact, he even looks like Berry when he is on the field. He has great instincts that is coupled with power and speed. These are all the things that NFL teams look at when they are looking for a reliable, productive linebacker.

    As of now, Johnson is ranked as the top outside linebacker in the 2015 class. It looks like Johnson is a surefire first-rounder from here.

Justin Hunter

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    One of the worst sights last year was watching Hunter go down with a torn ACL versus Florida. Not only did it affect the game outcome, but it might have affected the season as a whole.

    Hunter was looking great for the first three games. He was leading the SEC in receptions and yards per game (8.0 and 151.0 respectively.) He and Da'Rick Rogers were a great pair that were ready to take the college football world by storm. While it may have been delayed, we can expect Rogers and Hunter to have monstrous years in 2012.

    Just in case you weren't already excited to see Hunter return, get this: By projections, Hunter was on track to get 1,256 yards receiving and eight touchdowns. He will be an exciting guy to focus on next season.

    If Hunter can put this injury behind him, it is reasonable to assume that he is a high pick in the draft. His strengths are his speed (4.3 40-yard dash) and jumping ability (7'2" high jump) that he uses to go deep down field. He doesn't have the best separation skills, but he can outrun any coverage on him. Even if he is covered, his leaping ability towers over any safety or cornerback.

    At the rate Hunter is going at, he will be second-round pick. If he can stay healthy and learn to break off faster, he jumps into the first round.

Da'Rick Rogers

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    If the Hunter injury was beneficial for nothing else, it was good for showcasing Da'Rick Rogers' talents. He definitely emerged last year as a very important piece to this Tennessee team.

    Rogers led the SEC with 67 receptions and 1,040 yards receiving. He finished second in receiving touchdowns with nine. Rogers had a touchdown catch in five consecutive games and six games with over 100 yards receiving. It was a good year for Rogers and also Bray, who found his main target.

    On one of the most inconsistent teams, Rogers was one of the most reliable people. In addition to his good performances (even with Worley starting) he was clutch throughout the season too. This was displayed the best in the Vanderbilt game, where he made an amazing catch on fourth down to tie the game and send it to overtime, where the Vols would eventually win.

    In opposition to Hunter, Da'Rick has good separation ability and is a great guy for both mid-range to short passes. He is a consistent producer who can be very valuable for a team looking for a No.1 receiver. 

    Normally, Rogers would be a first-round pick, but there are still guys ahead of him. If he can repeat his performance next year though, he can still be picked in the first round. If not, expect an early second-round pick for him.

Tyler Bray

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    It is perfectly understandable if any of you jumped from the opening slide to this one. After all, Tyler Bray is the best NFL prospect on this list. In fact, he has drawn comparisons to Peyton Manning with how good of a QB he has been for the Vols.

    My heart dropped like a rock in my stomach when I watched Bray suffer a broken thumb in the Georgia game. Bray was projected to pass for nearly 34 touchdowns and 3,798 yards. Sure, some of those stats might be inflated by teams like Montana, but he has still performed just as well versus teams like Florida. 

    Even though he succumbed to injury, he still had 17 touchdowns to six interceptions. With two of the best receivers in the nation (and a backup cast that will surely break out next year), I see no reason why Tyler Bray cannot build on the success that he has been having. Next year just can't come soon enough for this team.

    Bray is a top tier talent that has been projected as the No.1 pick in the 2014 draft. There is a reason for that. He already has the size (6'6", 210 pounds) and the arm strength that NFL teams gush over. But perhaps his most underrated skill is his intelligence on the field. This is where the Manning comparisons start. He is able to read defenses decently and make calls at the line of scrimmage. Any team looking for a pocket passer is going giddy over Bray.

    Like all quarterbacks though, Bray has stuff to work on. His football IQ is decent, but still needs to be raised. It also wouldn't hurt if he could bulk up a little. Both of these can be fixed in the gym and video room. 

    It will be really exciting to see what the future holds for Tyler Bray and this Volunteer team.