A History of Tennessee Football Players Leaving Early for the NFL Draft

Paul Abell-US PRESSWIRE

The risk and reward of leaving Knoxville early.

Early mock drafts are burn after reading material; this time of year everyone is as quick to put forth their 2015 projections as we are to read them, but when the draft rolls around again next year you'll be hard pressed to find those original projections because so much can change in a single season.

Two years ago this month, Tyler Bray was rocking the Top 5 in a number of 2013 mock drafts.  Today many of them are hiding in the dark corners of the internet, but Bray was even listed as the first overall pick a couple of places; Sports Illustrated's mock from Andrew Perloff on May 1, 2012 had Bray going fourth.  As you know, Tyler Bray was ultimately undrafted.

One year ago Todd McShay, among many others, put Tiny Richardson in the first round of his 2014 mock.  This week Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk used McShay and Tiny as one example of what can happen when the media over-speculates and over-hypes any player; if a player like Richardson is told going into the year he's a first round pick, what would it take for him to change his mind and actually stay in school?  How often does that scenario play out?  Because more and more often reality is becoming players like Bray and Richardson are evaluated too quickly with too much of the body of work left on the table.  Or perhaps in Richardson's case, fewer snaps left in his knees.

This year 98 underclassmen declared early.  36 of them went undrafted.  It didn't used to be this way.  If a player went pro early, they were much more of a guarantee to at least get drafted, and drafted early.  This is at least the way it's worked at Tennessee in the past.  Here's a rundown of the Vols who have left school early to enter the NFL Draft, where they've been taken and how they've fared.  As I can't find an official listing of those who've left early we're going on my own research, so let us know if we missed anyone.

Chuck Webb - 1991, Round 3

The first case I know of is perhaps the strangest.  Webb destroyed the UT single game record book as a freshman in 1989, joining with Reggie Cobb in the CobbWebb attack in the first half of the season.  When Cobb was kicked off the team for substance abuse midway through the season, Webb took the mantle and ran the Vols to an SEC Championship with 294 yards against Ole Miss (still the school record) and 250 against Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl (still second).  Then he blew his knee out in the second game of the 1990 season, and never returned to the team.  Webb elected to try the pros and was taken by Green Bay in the third round fresh off the injury.  He played only two seasons in the pros.  But ask anyone who was alive and paying attention back then, and they'll tell you Chuck Webb was the best they've ever seen.

Carl Pickens - 1992, Round 2

Pickens played with Webb on loaded Vol squads which won consecutive SEC Championships in 1989 and 1990.  He played offense and defense as a freshman in '89 before moving exclusively to offense in 1990, catching what is still a school record 13 passes against #1 Notre Dame.  He was a Heisman Trophy candidate entering the 1991 season and became a first-team All-American.  Pickens was drafted early in the second round by Cincinnati, was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1992, and eventually made a pair of Pro Bowls in 1995-96.  Pickens broke a number of Bengals career receiving records before Ochocinco ultimately surpassed them.

Heath Shuler - 1994, Round 1 #3 Overall

While Shuler is clearly a poster child for draft busts, his decision to leave the Vols early was clearly rewarded on draft day.  Shuler was the 1993 Heisman runner-up in a year when only Charlie Ward was going to win.  The '93 Vols remain the highest-scoring offense in school history, and Shuler's cannon arm and dual-threat potential made him coveted by any team with a need at quarterback.  But in three seasons with Washington and one with New Orleans Shuler finished with a 15-33 TD-INT ratio.  I always thought his biggest issue was being able to make throws in college on arm strength in tight windows that simply weren't there in the NFL, and a foot injury later in his career finished his chances.  Many will say Shuler should have returned to Knoxville to help with his decision making as a senior, but again, when you're the third overall pick, you should probably go.  Shuler's departure also started a sequence of events that led to Peyton Manning becoming the starter as a freshman the following year.

Jamal Lewis - 2000, Round 1 #5 Overall

Lewis probably goes just behind Chuck Webb on the list of most talented Vol RBs ever.  A wrecking ball as a freshman with 1,364 yards (still third best in UT history), Lewis tore his ACL in the fourth game of the eventual National Championship season, then returned as a Heisman candidate as a junior in 1999.  His 103.0 yards per game average is still the best in school history, and Lewis remains fifth all-time in rushing yards at UT, bested only by players who stayed all four years.  Some UT fans gave him grief for appearing to not run as hard after the Florida loss in 1999, and with Travis Henry in the fold the Vols could afford to split carries.  Lewis' talent was undeniable, drafted fifth and a key component of the Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl season as a rookie.  In 2003 Jamal joined the 2,000 yard club with 2,066 rushing yards, still third most in NFL history in a club with only seven members.  The same year he broke the NFL record for rushing yards in a single game with 295, since broken by Adrian Peterson by a single yard.  Simply put, Jamal Lewis is one of the best running backs football has ever seen.  He made the right move going pro.

Cosey Coleman - 2000, Round 2

Coleman went pro as a two-time All-SEC and a 1999 All-American, playing on an incredibly talented Vol offensive line including Chad Clifton.  Drafted by Tampa Bay in the second round, Coleman joined Jamal Lewis as Vols from the '98 squad who also won a Super Bowl early in their careers.  Coleman was a seven year starter for Tampa Bay and then Cleveland; not going in the first round maybe you can make the argument he should have stayed, but he was clearly NFL ready in the long run.

Deon Grant - 2000, Round 2

Six picks after Coleman the Carolina Panthers took Deon Grant, the third junior to leave from the 1999 Vol squad; the Vols had seven players taken in the first and second round of the 2000 NFL Draft.  One of the most talented defensive backs to ever play at Tennessee, Grant was a journeyman starter for Carolina, Jacksonville, and Seattle before landing with the New York Giants late in his career, where he was a part of their Super Bowl title in 2012.  No one watching the Vols could deny Grant's talent; like Coleman maybe he stays for first round money, but he ended up with a twelve year NFL career and a Super Bowl ring.

Donte Stallworth - 2002, Round 1 #13 Overall

Stallworth was an interesting case, declaring for the NFL Draft but changing his mind and attempting to rejoin the Vols as a senior, but to no avail.  His stock was clearly high, going 13th overall to New Orleans.  Stallworth would enjoy an eleven year NFL career and was especially productive in his first six seasons with the Saints, Eagles, and Patriots.  Despite his eventual desire to return to Knoxville, his decision to go pro was clearly validated by the high choice.

Albert Haynesworth - 2002, Round 1 #15 Overall

Two picks later Big Al became the third Vol (along with John Henderson) to be taken in the first 15 picks of the 2002 draft.  Haynesworth played seven seasons with the Tennessee Titans and made the Pro Bowl in 2007 and 2008.  His presence was key in the Titans earning the number one AFC seed for the 2008 playoffs, and Haynesworth built off that success to land one of the largest free agent contracts in history with the Washington Redskins.  Of course, things went downhill for Haynesworth from there, but in Nashville he became one of the best defensive tackles in football, and his decision to leave early was certainly rewarded.

Kelley Washington - 2003, Round 3

The 2001 triumvirate of Stallworth, Washington, and Witten all made interesting choices with their NFL futures.  Stallworth went pro then tried to take it back, but was ultimately an early first round pick.  Jason Witten stayed but when the Vol offense tanked in 2002 thanks in large part to injuries, he fell to the third round as a senior junior (updated below).  But Witten has certainly proven himself and should be a Hall of Fame tight end.  Kelley Washington everyone assumed was going pro as a 22 year old freshman, but shocked the Vols by returning for 2002.  Thought to be a first round lock the previous year, Washington was lost for the year with a neck injury against Georgia and fell to the third round.  He spent four years with the Bengals, two with the Patriots, and one with the Ravens, amassing just over 100 catches during that time.  The Future's brightest moments ultimately came in 2001 in Knoxville; despite the way he rubbed many UT fans the wrong way, Washington is an example of a player who hurt his own stock (largely due to injury) by staying and never really made a name for himself in the NFL.

Jason Witten - 2003, Round 3

We missed Witten on the first pass because I got confused about whether he was eligible to enter the draft after his breakout 2001 season.  But Witten was still just a junior in 2002, when like Kelley Washington his numbers dropped because of injuries to Casey Clausen and the loss of other weapons in the passing game.  Witten still elected to go pro but fell to the third round with multiple tight ends going before him.  However, the cream has risen beyond the top with Witten, one of the best tight ends of the modern era and an eleven year veteran with the Dallas Cowboys.  Witten has made nine Pro Bowls, trailing only Peyton Manning and Reggie White (both 13 times) in Vol history.  He should have stayed for first round money, but he certainly made his own way once he went.

Robert Meachem - 2007, Round 1 #27 Overall

Meachem left school as a redshirt junior after a huge breakout season in 2006, where his 1,298 yards remains the single season record and earned him All-American honors.  Despite putting up almost nothing the two previous years, Meachem headed out and was taken late in the first round by New Orleans.  After missing his rookie year with a knee injury, Meachem had five productive seasons with the Saints and landed a lucrative free agent deal with the Chargers.  He flamed out in San Diego and has since returned to New Orleans.

Jerod Mayo - 2008, Round 1 #10 Overall

Mayo played both outside and middle linebacker for the Vols and was a key component of the final John Chavis defenses in Knoxville.  After earning second team All-America honors as a junior and 140 tackles, he gave up his senior year and was taken 10th overall in the NFL Draft by New England.  I think at the time many of us were surprised he went that high, but his Sunday career has more than backed it up:  2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year, leading the league in tackles in 2010, and a pair of Pro Bowls in 2010 and 2012.  He will look to return from a torn pectoral muscle in 2014.

Eric Berry - 2010, Round 1 #5 Overall

Of all the names on this list (and because Peyton Manning thankfully wasn't on it) Eric Berry was the biggest no-brainer.  His freshman campaign was so unbelievable he immediately appeared in future mock drafts, and despite the win/loss record in 2008 and 2009 he continued to play at an unbelievably high level.  Berry won the Thorpe Award in 2009 and has made three Pro Bowls in each of the three season he's played healthy.  No one was surprised when he turned pro and no one argued with his decision, then or now.

Cordarrelle Patterson - 2013, Round 1 #29 Overall

CP was in Knoxville one year, and it was spectacular despite the 5-7 record.  With the change at the top Patterson and the next several names on this list didn't want to stick around to start over again in what would have been their senior seasons.  Anyone who saw CP's ridiculous highlight reel knew this kid had Sunday talent, and his rookie season in Minnesota confirmed it:  45 catches for 469 yards, a franchise-record 1,393 kick return yards including the record-setting 109 yarder, and a trip to the Pro Bowl as a specialist.  Get this guy a quarterback.

Justin Hunter - 2013, Round 2

Just a few picks later, the Titans made a move to get Justin Hunter early in Round 2.  Hunter wasn't as spectacular as CP during his rookie year, but still caught four touchdown passes as the Titans lost Jake Locker early in the year to injury.  Like Patterson, I think we all believe the best is yet to come for this guy.  His ACL injury during his sophomore year also made him more likely to jump to the pros.

Dennis Rogan (2009), Tyler Bray (2013), Darrington Sentimore (2013), Antonio Richardson (2014) - undrafted

Sentimore was the strangest case, undrafted and to little surprise from anyone who saw Sal Sunseri's defense.  Bray and Richardson both absolutely looked the part at many moments in their college careers.  With Bray especially, I thought some team somewhere would take a chance on him, especially considering the likes of Logan Thomas got drafted this year.  Bray ultimately made the roster with the Chiefs, but they just made the playoffs with Alex Smith and just drafted Aaron Murray to compete for a roster spot with Bray and Chase Daniel.  The assumption is Bray's immaturity and film work left teams keeping their distance.  Tiny Richardson went toe to toe with the best pass rushers in the SEC, but the assumption is his knees left teams keeping their distance.  Richardson's knees weren't going to get any better.  Bray, in hindsight, certainly could have helped himself if Butch Jones could have worked some additional magic between the ears, but there's no way his on-field production was going to match what he already did in 2012.

Overall Tennessee's early entrants have done well, as you'd expect.  Of the 19 names listed here eight were taken in the first round and four others in the second round; the recent decisions and consequences with Bray, Sentimore, and Tiny really skews the whole thing.  Of the 19 early entrants seven made the Pro Bowl (Pickens, Lewis, Haynesworth, Witten, Mayo, Berry, Patterson) and four others were consistent NFL starters, with the jury still out on Justin Hunter.

For the Vols overall, almost everyone who has left early has been rewarded in the Draft, and more than half have been productive once selected.  But Tennessee's recent trend models that of all of college football:  players jumping ship after three years with inflated hype thanks in part thanks to too many mock drafts and too many talking heads.  It will also be interesting to see how the issues with the NCAA and paying players works itself out as well; even if you're a late round pick or an undrafted free agent, you will earn a very good living if you just make a roster.  For these and other reasons, more and more players are leaving early and more and more players are left disappointed.  I hope the Vols get back to being good enough to send players early to the pros with little or no debate.  But I also hope this growing trend doesn't take guys who could help us and help themselves in their senior season and send them instead to the land of damaged dreams and undrafted free agency.

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