Real, live NFL football is less than 30 hours away. I’m not sure how we made it, but we did. We may not get a fantastic product, and we may not get to see every game promised, but the NFL is returning to our airwaves.
The past few years—alright, decade—hasn’t been all that kind to the Tennessee football program when it comes to NFL production. The Volunteers have struggled to put many players in the league, and they don’t have as many stars as they once did. There’s some early indications this might be changing under head coach Jeremy Pruitt. For now at least, the upcoming NFL season will feature maybe the least impressive group of former Volunteers in recent memory.
Which oddly makes some of these storylines more intriguing. There are a lot of players who are in one of the most decisive years of their NFL tenures. Multiple players who used to call Knoxville home have the attention of their fanbases, who hope they can live up to expectations. It’s objectively interesting to watch even if you’re not in those fanbases.
We’ve set out the top five NFL storylines which Tennessee fans need to follow for this season. Even if you’re not all that invested in the league (like I am), we have something or somebody you can root for.
Where is Alvin Kamara’s next move?
Most assume that Kamara will stay in New Orleans, at least for the short term. But as contract talks extend out, and teams begin to look at where they focus their money, Kamara staying with the Saints is not necessarily in the long term plans. Running backs simply aren’t as valued anymore (even ones as good as Kamara). Add in a 2019 campaign that saw him riddled with injuries, and at the very least there is a question of how committed the two sides are to each other.
Kamara is indisputably the best former Volunteer in the league right now. He has helped redefine what a running back can do in the NFL, while also showing a mix of explosiveness and shiftiness that’s one-in-a-million. Will he continue his tear with the Saints? Or will he be one of the most sought after players on the trade market?
Is this Derek Barnett’s “prove it” year?
The record-holder for career sacks at Tennessee has had an enigma of a career in Philadelphia so far. The fourth-year defensive end missed 12 games in the past two seasons, after turning heads as a rookie in 2017. His 2018 season was essentially scrapped due to injury. He did rebound a good bit in 2019 with 6.5 sacks and 30 tackles to go along with two forced fumbles.
Barnett hasn’t necessarily been a bust—but when you’re selected as a top-15 pick, your team expects more out of you. Barnett could still very well be in the future plans for the Eagles. That’s likely going to be decided in 2020, now that Barnett has gone through the offseason fully healthy. It’s put up or shut up time if Barnett wants to sign a big contract come 2021.
Can Malik Jackson rebound?
We’re keeping it in Philadelphia for this next one. The Eagles signed defensive tackle Malik Jackson to a 3-year, $30 million dollar contract in 2019, in hopes that he would solidify their interior. Instead, Jackson suffered an injury in the first game of the season, and was put on injured reserve shortly afterwards. He is now back to full health in time for training camp.
Jackson’s career has been very satisfying to watch. He came out of a Tennessee program with poor leadership and still managed to make a name for himself in the league. He burst on the scene with the Denver Broncos from 2013 to 2015, before signing a 6-year, $85.5 million dollar contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016. Evidently other teams saw his impact.
Unfortunately for Jackson, he never quite lived up to his lofty contract, and after just three years they released him.
It’s always fun to see the highly drafted guys do well, but it’s arguably more fun to see someone like Jackson make waves at the next level. Going from a 5th round pick out of a struggling program, and turning into a top-15 defensive tackle in the league, is a story we can all root for. This next chapter is a key one, as Jackson has the opportunity to show what he can do at full strength on a decent team. He’s 30 years old and doesn’t have as much gas left as the others on this list. He could be in for a big year.
Can Kyle Phillips continue to shock the world?
One player with an even bigger hill to climb than Jackson was defensive end Kyle Phillips. After going undrafted in the 2019 NFL draft, few had expectations for Phillips in the league. He had underperformed essentially his whole time at Tennessee, and one year with Pruitt only did so much to get him prepared for the pros. He signed with the Jets before the season started, and most fans were just glad to see him get a chance.
He made the most of that chance. Phillips genuinely surprised people by becoming a solid contributor. Phillips totaled almost 40 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks in a season where most thought he would just be relegated to practice squad. Phillips showed versatility as both a 3-tech and an outside linebacker, gaining him the favor of the coaching staff. It seems that has once again shown up in training camp.
Another good year from Phillips could see him work his way a decent sized contract. One hit wonders are a thing of course—but Phillips has always been a smart guy, and his athleticism has never been questioned. There’s a lot going for him, especially on a team that is desperate for committed players.
Will Marquez Callaway be the next Cordarrelle Patterson?
Not much to analyze about this one since Callaway hasn’t played a snap yet. Interesting to note, however, is that Callaway made the 53-man roster for the New Orleans Saints despite going undrafted. Largely because he impressed their coaching staff with his special teams work in training camp. Callaway was a dynamite return man for the Volunteers, with three touchdowns in four years, and an average of 14 yards per return in the 2019 season. He now has a chance to work with one of the best offensive minds in the game and fight for reps in an NFL receiver room.
Patterson meanwhile was a first round selection who made an immediate impact in the receiving room. But Patterson’s main value comes as a returner, where he has been tabbed as the premier option. Both former Tennessee players boast impressive athleticism and a certain rawness which intrigues coaches. If Callaway can put his nose to the grindstone and show some life on special teams, he could find a similar sweet spot that Patterson has found in the NFL.