As much as we want to ignore the possibility, we are forced to confront it: There’s a real chance that the 2020 college football season does not happen. That’s a scenario which no Tennessee football fan—much less any college football fan—has ever experienced. For a team like the Volunteers, who have such a broad reach across the state, it’s almost incomprehensible to think about.
It’s doubly a shame for all the players who wanted to show their improvement from 2019. For the seniors on the team, they might not even get a chance to play through their final year of eligibility. It creates an interesting dilemma for many: If there’s a 2021 NFL Draft, how many players will just go ahead and enter it? Will any actively choose to come back to college for the (presumed) added year of eligibility? Will there even be a 2021 draft?
We don’t get paid to answer those questions. Instead, we thought it’d be a fun idea to imagine which players from Tennessee will be sought after in the next NFL draft. A lot of energy has been spent on the 2020 draft prospects from the team—but fans are in for a real treat in 2021. From the looks of it, at least five Tennessee players will be discussed as potential draft picks, and another five have a straightforward path to joining the others. We name those players and look at where they might find themselves in the coming draft.
Names to Look For
OT/OG Cade Mays (Top 50)
The biggest transfer of the offseason might not be in Knoxville for very long. Mays played at a very high level in his first two years of college, and he will come to Tennessee with a clear path to starting at virtually any position on the offensive line. Another season of production might be enough to convince him to head to the NFL early. He’s already received attention from certain 2021 mock drafts.
One factor which could keep Mays at Tennessee (assuming he plays the 2020 season) is how stacked the offensive tackle board is for the 2021 draft. Oregon junior Penei Sewell is the unanimous top tackle/lineman, and truthfully he should contend for top player overall status. Behind him is Stanford redshirt junior Walker Little, who was right up there with Sewell before an injury kept him out of the 2019 season. Assuming he recovers completely, he’ll be back to the #2 option behind Sewell.
Behind them is a mix of Texas senior Sam Cosmi, Alabama senior Alex Leatherwood, and Mays. That’s a strong draft class which could cause someone of Mays’ caliber to drop farther than he should.
OT/OG Trey Smith (Top 50)
It’ll be very interesting to watch Smith’s draft process. If his medical condition flares up again, he might not participate at all. We’re going to assume that he gets through 2020-2021 with no complications or serious injuries.
Ultimately teams will choose whether to evaluate him as a tackle, a guard, or both. Smith has the talent to play both—it’s simply a matter of which one NFL teams think he projects best at. If you are in the tackle group, 2017 is your body of evidence, and if you are in the guard group, 2019 serves that role.
He’s played at an All-SEC level in each of the two seasons he’s been healthy. Assuming that stays true for 2020, he’ll be projected in the first couple of rounds.
CB Bryce Thompson (Top 100)
Thompson has proven himself as the #1 corner on the team. His general coverage ability and surprising tendency to disrupt in the backfield make him a very well rounded corner. In addition, he has a great size for the position and projects well to the NFL. He has all the traits you want in a number one cornerback
What’s going to potentially hold Thompson back is off-the-field questions. Even if you think the 2019 early season suspension is an isolated event, those types of situations prompt a lot of digging by NFL teams. Organizations want to be sure they’re drafting somebody who will keep their nose clean.
It’s imperative for Thompson that he stay on the straight and narrow path and continue the performances that he’s had in 2018 and 2019. If so, Thompson will become one of those players who slowly moves up the draft boards as the season progresses.
CB Alontae Taylor (Top 150)
When you examine what Taylor brings to the table as a corner, it’s not radically different from Thompson. The latter has more of an impact with blitzing and general run support, but in coverage, they have the same ability. Taylor looked well on his way to being the top corner after 2018.
We all know how his 2019 went. Massively disappointing to start, with a strong finish. While that would usually be enough to maintain positivity for 2020, it’s instead causing a lot of uncertainty. The optimistic fans would like to believe that Taylor will firmly reestablish himself as a potential All-SEC corner. Pessimistic fans are less sure of it. At this point, NFL teams are probably wondering the same thing.
Taylor’s past results will garner him looks regardless. A resurgent year would likely make him anywhere from a 2nd round cornerback to 5th round. Any worse and it’s going to be hard for him to hear his name called at all.
DL Aubrey Solomon (Top 150)
It’s fair to say that Solomon hasn’t been the total superstar lineman he was billed as when he transferred from Michigan. However, he was still one of the better pieces in the trenches when healthy (though he dealt with injuries throughout the year). From a pure draftability standpoint, playing in 11-12 games next season will answer one of the biggest concerns with him.
As a player, Solomon did a nice job of clogging up running lanes after the first few contests. He didn’t get to the passer as much as the staff would have liked though. As he gets closer to a potential NFL draft date, it’s becoming clearer that Solomon’s ceiling wasn’t as high as initially thought. He could still find a reliable role on plenty of teams in the league. Not everyone needs to be the next coming of Warren Sapp.
DL Darel Middleton (Top 200)
Middleton is the most interesting prospect on this list. Let me explain.
From a pure athletic standpoint, no lineman on the team has the ceiling that Middleton does. He is 6-foot-7, 305 pounds, and could play at any position on the line. Defensive tackle is probably his best bet in the future, but he moves well enough that he could make a living at defensive end.
We saw flashes of dominance in 2019. Despite not starting a majority of games, Middleton was used heavily in all 13 contests. Arguably his best performances came against Alabama and Kentucky, when Middleton looked like a human battering ram on certain snaps. He was in the backfield and blowing up plays before they had a chance to get started.
Right now the two biggest things holding him back are how raw he is as a football player, and a recent domestic assault incident. The former he needs to show progress on if he wants to be drafted in the earlier rounds. It shouldn’t be surprising since he was a wide receiver just a few years ago. The latter is going to take a lot of genuine growth off the field. Even then it might be enough to send him sliding down draft boards.
If Middleton makes the leap that he hinted at last season, he has the ability of a first round pick.
C Brandon Kennedy (Top 250)
The knee injury will scare some teams off from the jump. If they’re willing to do a deeper dive however, they’ll find Kennedy as a reliable and high floor option at the center position. He has adequate size, proven on-field production, and by all accounts is a very positive influence off the field. He won’t blow anyone away with his athleticism or convince them that he’s a can’t-miss prospect. Instead, he can be looked at as an investment for quality depth and potentially more down the road.
RB Ty Chandler
Few players could benefit more from a strong 2020 than Chandler. Right now he’s likely a 7th round pick or undrafted free agent, based on measurables and flashes of brilliance. A rebound season could plant him firmly in the 4th or 5th rounds. He has the skillset that the NFL is looking for, it’s just a matter of proving he can actually do something with it.
OT/OG Jahmir Johnson
You can never have too many linemen. Johnson has performed well when he’s been on the field (and he was arguably Tennessee’s best linemen in 2018 after Smith went down). His 2019 was hampered by injury, but a fully healthy 2020 could convince NFL teams he’s worthy of taking a flyer on.
WR Josh Palmer
His draft stock will completely depend on how he handles becoming the #1 receiver on the team. Pro scouts will love his body control, catch radius, and deep threat ability. Now they just need to see the production. If Palmer acclimates well to his new role, he could very well be mid-round selection.
DB Theo Jackson
Anytime you play in 30+ games and start a chunk of those, you’ll receive looks from professional scouts. Jackson could be an interesting addition to a secondary looking for an in-the-box type of defender.
DB Shawn Shamburger
Similar situation as Jackson. He’s a bit more proven as a defensive back, but I’m not sure Shamburger has a high ceiling, which could cause teams to look for more exciting options.