We'll keep our eyes focused on Saturday, when Marquez North and perhaps one or two others might hear their names called in the NFL Draft. But next year, we should have high levels of investment on Thursday and Friday as well.
We were going to ask which Vol would be the first name off the board in next year's NFL Draft, then realized Derek Barnett is an obvious front-runner. He's projected to go sixth overall in one of the two mock drafts at WalterFootball.com and 11th in the other. You never know - it's always a bit of a dartboard a year away; the good folks at Walter once had Tyler Bray as the first overall pick about this distance away. But Barnett, if and when he turns pro, should be an obvious first choice.
So, if we take Derek Barnett off the board...who's the next Vol we'll see drafted next April?
Will Shelton - Jalen Reeves-Maybin
If healthy, I think JRM can be the face of Tennessee's defense in a year when Tennessee's defense can be elite. Barnett will get more highlights, but I feel like it's an understatement to say, "JRM will be everywhere." He's already been everywhere: eight tackles per game two years in a row. And he already has a history of showing up best in big games: 3.5 TFLs at Georgia in 2014, 3 TFLs and 21 total tackles against Oklahoma last year, 2 TFLs at Florida, 2.5 at Alabama. I don't know if he'll have a better NFL career than the rest of these guys, but I do think he'll make the biggest impression this fall.
I_S - Cam Sutton
Jalen Hurd is more athletic, but he's not going to be head and shoulders above every other running back in college football, which means in the current NFL climate, he's probably not going too early. Jalen Reeves-Maybin will probably be all over the place, but reports were that his draft grade this year was fifth round or later. It's hard to believe he'll be so much more all over the field this year--after all, he already stole the defensive headlines in 2015--that he'll go from fifth to first. Sutton, on the other hand? A fantastic first two years had him considered a lock to go out after his junior season, but he stepped back a bit in year three. Why? I'm not sure, although not being on the field late in the game against Florida makes me suspect he was playing through an injury. I can't find anything to confirm this, but whether he was hurt or not, with a new coordinator known to excel with defensive backs, I expect Sutton to be better than ever in 2016 and live up to his post-2014 draft grade of late first/early second.
Hunter Turner -- Jalen Reeves-Maybin
The safe answer is Cam Sutton, but it's possible he could fall in the draft as teams begin their annual infatuation with workout warriors, making eyes at every sparkling 40 time and impressive vertical leap. Sutton has about as impressive a body of work as a four-year starting college cornerback can have, but to paraphrase Kenny Powers, he plays real sports-- not trying to be the best at exercising. So that leaves us with Jalen Hurd, an upright running back in a league that devalues running backs in general and big backs in particular, a Defensive Lineman Doing His Best Justin Harrell Impression... and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. And honestly, why not Maybin? Sure, he's not the biggest guy in the world and he doesn't have gaudy sack numbers, but he most definitely has an elite skill-- the quickness and foot speed to hold up in underneath coverage against backs, tight ends, and third/fourth wide receivers. Reeves-Maybin is the kind of guy who gradually works his way up the board to the bottom of the first round, goes to a contender, and spends the next ten years of his career holding down one side of a traditional 4-3 defense, never earning too much publicity but a model of consistency for coaches. Under defensive coordinator John Chavis, the Vols would churn out one or two of these guys a year-- high school running backs and safeties moved to linebacker; guys like Raynoch Thompson, Kevin Burnett, Eric Westmoreland, Eddie Moore, Keyon Whiteside, and Omar Gaither were all drafted in the second- through fifth-rounds and for the most part kicked around on NFL rosters for years.
Now the 2018 draft-- that should be one for the ages.
Chris Pendley - Cam Sutton
First off, this is the pick I was born to make. Secondly, this is exactly the kind of guy Anonymous NFL Scout was made to quietly trash to Pro Football Talk since he doesn't have a perfect pedigree and might've been late paying his cable bill once.
That means Sutton could slip, which is hilarious to anyone who's seen him play. The worst game I can recall from him was against Vanderbilt back when Jarmed Franklin was still there (the first time around-spoiler warning) and the biggest issue was Sutton couldn't get off WR picks as Vandy threw a bunch of WR screens to his side.
That was three years ago.
He'll go later than he should (see Vernon Hargreaves for an example of this) and NFLthink will look back in three years and wonder how he slipped. But we knew. We knew.
(That being said, I still almost picked Alvin Kamara.)