Tennessee Football: Vols' Top 2017 NFL Draft Prospects

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2016

Tennessee Football: Vols' Top 2017 NFL Draft Prospects

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    David Stephenson/Associated Press

    After snapping a streak that saw at least one Tennessee football player taken in every NFL draft since 1963 a season ago, the Volunteers extended the latest dubious streak this past weekend.

    For the second consecutive season, no Vols were picked among the 253 players taken in the seven rounds of the 2016 edition of the draft, finally slamming the door on the dark ages of the Derek Dooley debacle.

    The Knoxville News Sentinel's Dustin Dopirak confirmed Marquez North and Brian Randolph signed free-agent contracts with the Los Angeles Rams, and Curt Maggitt was going to the Indianapolis Colts. Alex Ellis was expected to sign with the Tennessee Titans.

    Still, no player heard his name called, and NFL Network mentioned that about five different times during Saturday's coverage, with former Vol Charles Davis on the broadcasting panel.

    If UT's consecutive shutouts don't tell you how far head coach Butch Jones has been asked to take the program, nothing will. 

    The embarrassing streak for a proud program will end next season, though. Jones' recruiting spoils will be front and center as a few guys from his first (partial) class of 2013, including Cameron Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, almost certainly will be taken.

    Several more players will have the opportunities to leave Knoxville early to try their hands at a pro payday. 

    Tennessee is expected to be one of the up-and-coming programs nationally this year, and if the Vols can parlay that hype and capitalize on all the exposure, it'll wind up benefiting a lot of players in their NFL quests.

    It'll also erase all those negative recruiting pitches you just know rival SEC coaches are using against the Vols right now. So, let's take a look at some of Tennessee's top draft prospects for the '17 draft.

Derek Barnett, Junior Defensive End

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The ability to harass the quarterback has never been more important in the NFL than it is right now. The league has turned into a pass-first atmosphere, and getting after the opposing signal-callers results in wins.

    Just ask Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who could barely take a breath without Von Miller and company in his grill during a Super Bowl loss to the blitzing Denver Broncos.

    Five pass-rushing specialists were taken in the first round of this year's draft, and a total of 14 defensive ends or outside linebackers were selected in the first two rounds. If you can rush, they'll rush you up the list.

    That's excellent news for Tennessee rising junior Derek Barnett, and it's not such great news for the Vols, who'd love to keep him around for all four years. The 6'3", 257-pound Brentwood, Tennessee, native not only has been consistent getting after QBs, but he's also strong against the run.

    He's an all-around threat as a defensive end, who'd be a perfect fit for a 4-3 edge-rusher. In his first two seasons in Knoxville, Barnett has 141 total tackles (an impressive number for a defensive lineman), 20 sacks and an even more impressive 33 tackles for a loss.

    That could translate into dollar signs. Walter Football's latest mock draft has Barnett going 11th overall to the San Diego Chargers in next year's draft. Charlie Campbell of the same site has him going eighth.

    With Curt Maggitt injured a season ago, Barnett got off to a slow start battling some minor injuries of his own, or those numbers would be even better. This year, he's going to have so much help that opponents won't be able to show him as much attention.

    UT boasts talent such as Jonathan Kongbo, Corey Vereen, LaTroy Lewis, Darrell Taylor, Kyle Phillips and others who will be able to rotate in, stay fresh and disrupt offenses. With new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop loving to dial up the pressure, UT will come at teams from all directions.

    Reeves-Maybin and Quart'e Sapp will blitz a lot from the second level as well.

    All of that could spell a huge year for Barnett, and with the money that defensive ends make on the next level, he'd be crazy to not give the league a long, hard look. If he does, he may just be the first Vols player taken in the draft and break the streak in style—as a first-rounder.

Cameron Sutton, Senior Cornerback

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Sure, there were plenty of jokes made about the Vols being shut out yet again in this year's NFL draft, but the bottom line is three players who were almost sure to be taken decided to return for another year on Rocky Top.

    Out of the three Vols who flirted with declaring, Sutton's ceiling was highest. 

    While he wouldn't have gone as high as Florida's Vernon Hargreaves, it wouldn't have been surprising to see him go on the second day or early on the third. The Jonesboro, Georgia, native is a worker-bee cornerback who has become a technician in his three years at UT.

    After impressing everybody upon arriving in Knoxville, he became an immediate starter. It's easy for there to be lulls in production, but there never really has been a time when Sutton has struggled. Last year, he wasn't quite the shutdown star he had been the previous two years, but he was still excellent.

    Thankfully for the Vols, he's coming back to try to improve on an already-impressive career and to try to help take Tennessee to a championship level. 

    Perhaps the most important thing Sutton returns with him is his leadership. Freshman Marquill Osborne told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown that Sutton was "perfect."

    "Our players respect him, and he comes out here and all he does is work," Jones told Brown in the same article. "It's his approach. Like he told me, he treats every practice as though it's game day, and you can see that, because he continues to grow and elevate his play."

    The 5'11", 186-pound defensive back has seen his numbers decline over the course of his career, but it's mainly because opponents don't throw his way as much. If he needs to improve on anything, it's making big plays.

    Last year, Sutton had just one lone pick, and he didn't quite cause the disruption on defense that the Vols would like. However, it's easy to see his dynamic ability when teams punt to him. He scored two more touchdowns on punt returns last year and has three for his career.

    That kind of talent doesn't go unselected in the draft. It's not a matter of "if" but "when" Sutton will go next year.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Senior Outside Linebacker

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Another player who gave a long look at the NFL before returning to school was Reeves-Maybin, a player who actually committed to Dooley mid-term and stuck to his Tennessee commitment in the transition to Jones.

    The Vols are glad he did. The Clarksville, Tennessee, native will wind up one of the best defensive players in the past decade and one of the best linebackers to ever wear orange and white.

    JRM is a heat-seeking missile on the outside—as solid against the run because of his exceptional tackling ability as he is against the pass, where his speed allows him to gallop into the backfield and wreak havoc on plays. He's the epitome of a sideline-to-sideline 'backer.

    The Vols now just need for him to get healthy. He hurt his shoulder this spring, and the injury is going to cost him the entire offseason program. While there was nothing left for him to prove on the practice field, it's vital the Vols get him back in time to start the season.

    He's as close to irreplaceable as Tennessee gets on its defense.

    Now, there's plenty of leadership on UT's roster, and JRM is one of the biggest examples.

    "We motivate each other," Reeves-Maybin told SEC Country's Dave Hooker. "We hold each other to a high standard in the weight room, on the field, or wherever it is. Us four guys (Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, Reeves-Maybin and Sutton), if we continue to hold each other accountable and our teammates accountable, we’ll be able to police ourselves."

    The 6'0", 225-pound outside linebacker is a converted safety, and while he doesn't have the ideal size NFL teams covet on the second level, a team will choose him—and likely quickly. He has a strong chance to be a top-two-round selection and at least a third- or fourth-round pick.

    Walter Football has him going 14th overall to the New York Giants: "Jerry Reese hasn't valued linebackers very highly," the site wrote. "Perhaps he'll change his tune once he sees how much they're going to struggle in 2015. Why not take one of the top players available?" The same site's Charlie Campbell has him going 18th.

    That's high praise for JRM.

    With the aforementioned emphasis on rushing the passer, that's where JRM adds plenty of value. Few linebackers do that better than him, and he's fast enough not to get pushed around in the NFL.

    The Vols are thrilled to have him back for his final year in Knoxville, and after amassing 101 tackles and 105 tackles, respectively, the past couple of seasons, everybody is interested to see what he'll do for an encore.

    A big year may translate into a big payday for Reeves-Maybin.

Jalen Hurd, Junior Running Back

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Running backs are making a bit of a comeback, but don't expect Jalen Hurd to be one of the top two taken in next year's draft.

    That doesn't mean he won't have a long, healthy career on the next level. That's just a testament to a class that is slated to include players such as Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb, Royce Freeman, Samaje Perine, Corey Clement, Shock Linwood, James Conner and more.

    The 6'4", 240-pound Hurd is a workhorse who could break out with strong offensive line play. He will team with Kamara to give the Vols one of the best one-two punches in all of college football, and if he elects to go pro, he'll be tough for NFL teams to turn down.

    However, with the huge class of stud runners, could Hurd potentially decide to stay all four years in Knoxville? That would be huge news for the Vols, but nobody should count on it.

    The shelf life for runners on the next level isn't long, so players want to capitalize as soon as there's market value. UT has ridden Hurd pretty hard as the bell cow who has helped Jones bring the program back to respectability. Though Dobbs and Kamara will get their shares of carries this year, Hurd will be the showcase.

    Pro scouts likely want to see Hurd break more tackles at the line of scrimmage, but once he starts running downhill, he's as good as anybody in the country. NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang discussed just how impressive Hurd's performance was against Alabama in last year's narrow defeat:

    Though his Volunteers ultimately fell short, Hurd was every bit Henry's match in this contest, showcasing not only power but impressive fluidity. … Hurd averaged 5.1 yards per carry (on 18 attempts) against a stout Alabama front seven boasting several early-round NFL prospects, including projected first round defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed and inside linebacker Reggie Ragland.


    While Nick Saban and the Tide were victorious Saturday, the big winners could be the NFL. The SEC pipeline of running backs to the pros looks to be in excellent hands with Henry and Hurd (along with that Leonard Fournette guy at LSU) proving that the running backs still very much have a place in today's game.

    Hurd almost certainly will be the next NFL running back from Rocky Top. He's fewer than 900 yards from breaking Tennessee's all-time rushing record during his junior year.

    Whether he finishes his eligibility or goes pro a year early, Hurd will always hold a special place in UT fans' hearts for helping start the program's comeback.

Alvin Kamara, Junior Running Back

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    The most surprising player who tested the NFL waters on Tennessee's roster this year was redshirt sophomore Kamara, but he chose to come back to Knoxville another year.

    The Vols will likely reward him with a more featured role. With the former JUCO star and Alabama player's skill set, he can do a whole lot of things that will translate nicely on the next level. Blessed with really good speed and elite change-of-direction, Kamara is a player UT tries to get the ball to in a lot of different ways.

    Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord needs to expand that package in 2016.

    The Vols love that patented swing pass to Kamara coming out of the backfield, and they want to get the ball to him on the edge in space. But it wouldn't be a surprise to see him line up some potentially in the slot, too. Also, as electric as he is in special teams, Tennessee could use Kamara more in punt returns.

    Last year, he had 989 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 141 offensive touches. The Norcross, Georgia, native added another score on eight punt returns.

    You've got to figure after taking a hard look at the pros in '16 that Kamara will bolt a year early after this season, and if he does, he'll need to have some lines on his resume to help him stand out in a star-studded running backs class.

    Jones knows it, DeBord knows it and Kamara knows it. He's already endearing himself to folks around UT with his leadership skills—something that really wasn't believed to be an asset after he transferred from Alabama. But Kamara has grown up, and his actions are proving it.

    His play proves it, too.

    Kamara has the ability to, at least, be a third-down running back and a change-of-pace back on the next level. That is becoming a vital part of every pro offense, and with every team needing a guy like that, Kamara fits the bill. He's a weapon in the passing game, is exceptionally fast and is sneaky big at 5'10", 215 pounds.

    A favorable comparison may just be Alabama's Kenyan Drake, whom the Miami Dolphins took in the third round this year. It's not out of the realm of possibility to see a similar ceiling for Kamara. If that's the case, expect this to be his final year.

Justin Martin, Junior Cornerback

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    Perhaps one of the two biggest wild cards among players who could declare early is Tennessee starting cornerback Justin Martin.

    The JUCO transfer originally from Antioch, Tennessee, is a specimen at his position. At 6'1", 183 pounds, he boasts elite size and speed. Everybody in the SEC wanted him out of the JUCO ranks, and he elected to return home from junior college in Oklahoma to play for the Vols.

    It didn't take him long to make his mark. Though he didn't exactly show a propensity for big plays in his first year in Knoxville, Martin did seize the starting corner job away from incumbent Emmanuel Moseley.

    He started six of the 13 games in which he played, and he finished with 23 tackles and six pass breakups. He finished the season with one of his best games, as he capitalized the year with five tackles against Northwestern.

    Yes, Martin is raw, but he's also the most athletic defensive back on Tennessee's roster, and the more he plays, the better he gets. Getting coached by assistant Willie Martinez, who is known for coaching technique, will be a benefit as he seeks out the next level, too.

    With Shoop's knowledge of the back level, Martin stands to really grow this year. He's playing in a crowded backfield, so he's going to have to bring it in practice every single day, and that will make him better. Playing in such a talent-laden group will prepare him to go.

    JUCO players with three years to play rarely hang around through their whole careers if they're talented enough to go pro. While it would be unfair to guess about how much Martin enjoys being in school, a player with his size and ability almost certainly will get a shot at the NFL.

    When that money comes calling, you pick up the phone. Thankfully for the Vols, they've got a lot of talent in every class in the secondary. But if Martin has the year he's capable of having, it would not be a huge surprise to see him head to the league.

    He'll at least give it a long, educated glance.

Jonathan Kongbo, Sophomore Defensive End

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    Credit: 247Sports

    One-and-done JUCO players don't come around often, but future Tennessee defensive end Jonathan Kongbo could be one of those rare exceptions.

    It's a long shot.

    Not only has Kongbo never played on the highest level—he's also extremely raw. After redshirting at Wyoming as a freshman, he played JUCO ball in Arizona for one season. Now, he's coming to the SEC to try to step right in and terrorize quarterbacks.

    His immense ability should allow him to get on the field right away, but whether Kongbo is an every-down down lineman immediately remains to be seen. That would be a huge leap.

    Even so, everybody in the nation wanted the 6'5 ½", 264-pound beast who wound up choosing UT over Florida State, USC, Washington, Alabama, Ole Miss and others on national signing day. The Vols won the Kongbo sweepstakes with some aggressive early recruiting and tenaciousness even after he decommitted.

    Kongbo chose the Vols after visiting officially during the season, but he backed off that pledge and favored Alabama and Florida State at times throughout the process before finally coming back to the place he originally chose. Though the Vols have a lot of talent on the edge, Kongbo should play right away.

    He's that good. He's also endearing himself to the Vol Nation with things such as posting a workout video in front of a sign that says, "Bama We Coming," according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker.

    A player of Kongbo's size and speed doesn't come around often. He's a similar player to Alabama's Jarran Reed, who was a tackling machine on the Capstone and just went in the second round of the NFL draft.

    Even so, Reed stayed two years in Tuscaloosa and had to develop. He got better and better and eventually became a major prospect. Kongbo has that immense ability, but even the best JUCO players stick around at least a couple of years most of the time.

    But if he comes in and sets the conference on fire, his stay in Knoxville could be short. If he declared, an NFL squad would almost certainly pick him, but if he stays a while, he will probably improve his payday.

Joshua Dobbs, Senior Quarterback

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The story of Joshua Dobbs is going to be one of the more fascinating ones to watch not only throughout the season but into the NFL combine and next year's draft season as well.

    Can he play quarterback on the next level? Will his arm strength and accuracy develop enough for him to be considered a throwing prospect? If not, is he fast enough to perhaps learn another position such as running back or slot receiver and latch on with a team that way?

    All of that will be interesting to see.

    To see how far Dobbs must go, just look at the story of Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. Many of the same knocks brought down his stock heading into his junior year, but Prescott did a lot to calm the critics with his senior-season performance.

    The Bulldogs legend led the SEC with a 67.1 completion percentage, 2,528 passing yards, a 17-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 316.2 passing yards per game and 363.2 total offensive yards per game, all of which led NFL Media's Mike Mayock to say the following of Prescott, according to NFL.com's Marc Sessler:

    He's a solid prospect to develop as a starting quarterback. … You want to talk about a young man that's tough, has arm strength. Does he have to learn how to play the position and continue to develop? Absolutely. But I think learning behind Tony Romo, getting an opportunity with no pressure to come in and get reps behind him, he's got the athletic ability, he's got the arm talent. Ultimately, I think he's got the ability to be a starting quarterback in the NFL down the road.

    It's hard to envision Dobbs making a leap like that, especially with the running game he has behind him.

    But Dobbs doesn't necessarily have to replicate Prescott's numbers as long as he makes similar strides. NFLDraftScout.com ranked him as the third overall quarterback. Some analysts' comparisons to Russell Wilson won't mean anything if Dobbs doesn't improve his accuracy.

    So, if quarterback isn't in his future, is the league at all? Dobbs isn't super-fast, but his wizardry in the open field is intriguing. So is his intelligence, which could be something teams love, especially if they think he'd work out at another position.

    Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is a prime example of a prospect with intelligence and integrity who isn't necessarily a signal-caller on the next level. Baltimore selected him in the sixth round, and he's expected to play slot receiver. So, there is a life after signal-calling for dual-threat quarterbacks who don't translate.

    But Reynolds ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at his pro day, according to his NFL draft profile. It would be surprising if Dobbs ran that fast, though it isn't out of the question if he trains for it following the season.

    One of the most polarizing superstars in Tennessee in recent years figures to be a player with draft division as well.

    In a best-case world for the Vols, Dobbs would have a dynamic senior year and really elevate the conversation. If he does that, it'll be a strong senior year for him and UT.

    All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.

    Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.