The NFL draft has not been kind to Tennessee football in the past couple of years. Players with tons of potential but no refinement have been the only ones hearing their name called in the past couple of iterations. It culminated in a 2019 NFL Draft with not a single Tennessee player getting selected.
Jeremy Pruitt hopes to change all that soon. In the meantime however, Tennessee still has a healthy list of alums in the NFL. Thanks to the recent undrafted free agent signings, there will be 30+ former Volunteers on contract in the professional league. We’ve looked over the list and attempted to figure out the top 10 for the upcoming 2019 season.
We attempted to balance projects v.s. actual production. There are players on here who don’t have many accolades but are viewed positively by their teams and fans. If they are expected to be a starter in 2019, that also helps their case.
Despite the downturn in the football program, you might be surprised at the amount of success on this list. If you disagree with our rankings or think we missed on anyone, leave a comment below.
Note: We have excluded punters and kickers from this list. Trust me, that’s painful for us to say, as we all love our special teams players. But due to their limited role and the difficulty of ranking them over another, they have been removed. They still deserve recognition, since Tennessee is apparently Punter U. Some notable special teams players from the university include Britton Colquitt, Dustin Colquitt, Trevor Daniel, and Michael Palardy.
#1 Alvin Kamara (RB - New Orleans Saints)
Kamara became a deadly swiss-army knife of the most potent offense in the league. While Tennessee fans might feel a tinge of anger that Kamara wasn’t used to his fullest ability while in Knoxville, it’s also hard to deny that watching him tear it up on Sunday’s is immensely satisfying. After combining for over 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2018, Kamara is viewed as one of the best running backs in the league only two seasons into his career. Here’s to hoping that he has many more left in him.
#2 Ja’Wuan James (OT - Denver Broncos)
If the 2019 Tennessee Volunteers could choose to have one former player return for the season, the staff might honestly choose Ja’Wuan James to be that player. James has overcome a couple of injury-plagued seasons and managed to become one of the best right tackles in the entire league. He started 62 games in five years with the Miami Dolphins and recently signed a huge contract with the Denver Broncos. By huge, we mean one of the best contracts a right tackle has ever received: 4 years and $52 million, with $32 million guaranteed.
#3 Justin Coleman (CB - Detroit Lions)
From a 3-star, to a undrafted free agent, to one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL, Coleman has had an unusual career. He left Tennessee as an above-average cornerback who still had a ways to go before reaching his ceiling. After bouncing around between the Seattle Seahawks and the Minnesota Vikings, Coleman found his footing with the New England Patriots in 2015. He rapidly progressed and became a valued cornerback for multiple teams. After an impressive stint with the Seahawks in 2018, Coleman signed a four-year, $36 million dollar contract with the Detroit Lions. Here’s what Pro Football Focus had to say about Coleman’s recent play:
Coleman will join the Detroit Lions coming off an outstanding 2018 season with the Seahawks, where he earned the fifth-highest slot coverage grade (81.8). He also ranked seventh in first downs allowed per target (29.1%) and allowed just an 82.5 passer rating when targeted in the slot.
#4 Ramon Foster (RG - Pittsburgh Steelers)
Foster was one of the forgotten pieces of those late 2000s Tennessee teams. Despite a good career at Tennessee, he went undrafted in 2009 before getting signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Like others on the list, it took Foster a while to get acclimated to professional ball. But his last five seasons are about as consistent as you can hope for from a guard. Foster has turned into one of the best pass blocking guards and a decent run blocker to boot. The Steelers are committed to keeping him as a starter, and he recently receive a two-year, $8.25 million dollar extension from the team. That’s a great deal for someone as consistent as Foster who has proven his worth.
#5 Malik Jackson (DE/DT - Philadelphia Eagles)
If this list was made a couple of years ago, Jackson would be #1 overall. Due to a recent disappointing 2018 season, Jackson finds himself a bit lower than usual, but he’s still regarded as a solid 4-3 defensive tackle/3-4 defensive end. Jackson progressed steadily while on the Broncos from 2012 to 2014, and he finally blew up in 2015 with a 45 tackle, 5 sack, 7 passes defended season. He is a versatile player with enough athleticism to play on the outside, but also enough power to play on the inside. Hence why Jacksonville signed him to an $85.5 million contract in 2016.
His 2018 with the Jaguars wasn’t bad—it just wasn’t what we were accustomed to seeing from Jackson, whose first two years in Jacksonville had him record career highs in sacks and forced fumbles. The Jaguars had to release him due to salary cap issues, but it didn’t take long for Jackson to find a home with Philadelphia Eagles, where he and Derek Barnett figure to anchor a vicious defensive line in 2019.
#6 Derek Barnett (DE - Philadelphia Eagles)
It was hard figuring out where to put Barnett. On one hand, his rookie year in 2017 was fantastic, and he wasted no time turning into a legitimately good pass rushing defensive end. That alone was almost enough to get him even higher on this list. Unfortunately, his 2018 season ended early with a torn rotator cuff, and he only played seven games.
Despite the setback, Barnett is still expected to rebound in 2019 and get back to what the Eagles liked about him in his rookie year. Barnett’s injury isn’t the type which would have a long term effect on his career. If that holds true, he should be back to terrorizing quarterbacks in no time.
#7 Cordarelle Patterson (WR - Chicago Bears)
Patterson never did turn into the all-world receiver that he had the potential be. Much like his Tennessee days, Patterson has yet to take that next step in the NFL (and given that he’s entering his seventh year, he’s running out of time to do so).
The good news is that he’s still an absolutely electric return man who finds ways to contribute all around the offense. With the Patriots in 2018, Patterson combined for over 400 yards and four touchdowns as a running back/receiver, in addition to over 600 returns yards and one touchdown on kick returns. That’s basically been his M.O. since entering the league back in 2013. While he has yet to top his 2,000+ scrimmage yards from his rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings, Patterson still has plenty of interest around the league. He recently signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Chicago Bears.
#8 Zach Fulton (G/C - Houston Texans)
In terms of actual play on the field, Fulton is pretty average. He’s a good pass blocker, a mediocre run blocker, and overall he probably reached the ceiling of his career. That being said, Fulton is a versatile interior option that he’s proven he can play both center and guard at a moment’s notice. Fulton was originally with the Chiefs from 2014 to 2017, before signing to a four-year, $28 million dollar contract with the Houston Texans in 2018. Considering that he was a sixth round pick, Fulton succeeding as a starter is encouraging. He projects to be one of the Texans’ starting guards in 2019 as well.
#9 Luke Stocker (TE - Atlanta Falcons)
Tennessee Titans fan will remember Stocker as a player who stepped up during last season injury-fest. His primary skill is blocking, with receiving being a distant second based on production. He’s good enough at the former that he has spent eight years in the league and keeps getting contracts. Most recently, he has signed with the Atlanta Falcons on a two-year, $5.5 million dollar deal.
#10 Cam Sutton (CB - Pittsburgh Steelers)
No player on this list has been hampered by injuries more than Sutton. There were high hopes from the Pittsburgh Steelers when they drafted him in 2017, and they even expected him to win a starting job in the preseason. He aggravated his hamstring, causing him to miss three weeks of training camp, and he did not return until midway through the season. He performed admirably, though obviously not to the level they wanted him to.
It was a similar deal in 2018. This time he played 15 games, but once again it was obvious that Sutton was still catching up for lost time due to injury. The Steelers still think he can become a starting nickelback—if he can have a clean year and step up to the plate.
Keep An Eye On...
Rashaan Gaulden (CB/S - Carolina Panthers) - Team thinks highly of his potential. Played on special teams most of the year and figures to compete for a starting spot in the secondary.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin (LB - Detroit Lions) - Just started to put it all together before getting injured in 2018. A full, healthy season might be enough to get him in the top half of this list.
A.J. Johnson (LB - Denver Broncos) - Has all the physical talent in the world. Charged with rape a few years ago but was found not guilty last year. Signed with the Broncos and even appeared in a game.