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Vols in the NFL Draft: The Last Steps of the Rebuild

A seven year spiral in the NFL Draft should now be at an end in Knoxville, as the Vols project to send multiple players to the big board in the very near future.

Justin Hunter is one of only three Vols taken in the first two rounds in the last five years.
Justin Hunter is one of only three Vols taken in the first two rounds in the last five years.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As you know, Tennessee had no players taken in the NFL Draft for the first time since 1963.  The Vols were 10-10 in 1961-62 leading up to that draft; as you know Tennessee is 12-13 the last two years, and only Derek Dooley recruits were eligible to be drafted last week.  So far only three players Dooley signed out of high school who stayed with the program have been drafted - Justin Hunter, Ja'Wuan James, and Zach Fulton - though that number can still go up based on the prospects of Vol seniors this fall.

But the absence of our orange on draft weekend wasn't a one-time thing.  As we've consoled ourselves with recruiting rankings over the last two years, the first steps of a rebuild, we've also spent time these last seven years thinking of better days in both the fall and the late spring:

Vols in the NFL Draft 2

We start with the 1994 NFL Draft because it represents both the beginning of the seven round format and the first draft following Phillip Fulmer's promotion to head coach.  In the last 22 NFL Drafts, the Vols have had two or fewer players taken only four times, all since 2009.  You can also see the talent dip often referred to at the end of Fulmer's tenure:  Tennessee had an average of 6.8 players taken in the NFL Draft from 1994-2003.  That average dropped to four players taken from 2004-2010.  But in the last five drafts, which have included just a pair of Fulmer recruits in 2011 (Denarius Moore and Luke Stocker), Tennessee has averaged just two players taken.

Of course, we think this is about to change.

There are only 16 seniors on Tennessee's 2015 roster, including four junior college transfers from last year.  Of those 16 we expect seven to start and only a couple of others to make significant contributions.  The seniors on this team are bunched in two groups:  offensive linemen, a unit that struggled mightily last season, and at safety, where Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil should both have a chance to hear their names called next April.  From there you've got Pig Howard, who should play a big role in Tennessee's offense but may be too small to do the same in the NFL.  And you've got Curt Maggitt, who might be the Vols' best senior draft prospect if NFL teams can figure out if he's going to play defensive end or outside linebacker.

Butch's big recruiting hauls are, thankfully, still two falls away from draft eligibility.  So there is a ton of promise for kids like Derek Barnett and Jalen Hurd, but we get to enjoy it for ourselves for at least two more years.  But one of the best signs of elite talent is players leaving early for the NFL Draft.  And thanks to Butch's work in his first two months on the job, the Vols have a quartet of juniors who could also find their names in draft conversations if they had a big year.  One of the 2016 mocks has Cameron Sutton in the top ten.   The same site lists Marquez North as the fifth best receiver available in 2016.

The Vols probably won't see a jump back to the 6.8 player range in the 2016 NFL Draft.  But all signs point to the Vols moving in that direction in 2017 and beyond.  This should be the last time Butch Jones has to answer questions about Tennessee's ability to put players in the NFL.  And if things continue to progress this way, he may have to start answering questions about the number of players going pro early.