The football seasons are almost upon us. This Saturday, college football will begin the 2021 season, and the Tennessee Volunteers will start the march to a bowl game on September 2nd. Shortly afterwards on September 9th, the NFL season begins—hopefully, with less COVID issues, and more exciting games.
There’s a fair amount of college football fans who aren’t big NFL people. Either they don’t have a favorite team, or it’s not their cup of tea. But even that group can get interested with the help of some former Volunteers. Tennessee football has maintained a solid level of NFL draftees, even during a rough patch in the program’s history. Even if you’re not big on the NFL, it is fun to watch those guys make their dreams come true.
In preparation for the 2021 season, we have put together a list of the top 10 NFL players from the University of Tennessee. In the past, this list boasted names such as Peyton Manning, Eric Berry, Jason Witten, etc. We have now entered a new generation of players—and a list that looks completely different from even just two years ago.
#1 - Alvin Kamara (RB, New Orleans Saints)
Was there any doubt? Alvin Kamara has not only turned into one of the best running backs in the league–he’s become the face of the new generation of tailbacks in the NFL. His combination of versatility and balance has not been seen in quite some time. His current contract is 5-years, $75 million, insuring that the Saints have him locked down for a while. It’s the least they could do for a guy who’s recorded over 6,000 yards and 58 touchdowns in four years.
It helps that Tennessee knows how big Kamara has gotten. Putting Kamara’s photo up at Neyland Stadium is a pretty cool way to reminds fans and recruits: One of the biggest stars in the NFL also donned the orange and white.
#2 - Emmanuel Moseley (CB, San Francisco 49ers)
You’d be forgiven if you forgot about Moseley. He had a decent career at Tennessee from 2014 to 2017, but nothing too exceptional. When he went undrafted, most thought he would stick around on practice squads.
Make no mistake though: The former Volunteer has made the most of his professional opportunity. The San Francisco 49ers very much enjoy having Moseley on their team. In just three years, he has turned into one of their starting cornerbacks and a trustworthy veteran. He even made some huge plays in the 2019 postseason run, where the 49ers ultimately fell short in the Super Bowl.
He signed a 2-year, $10.1 million contract in early 2021 and figures to be in the plans with the team for the next few years. Moseley is the perfect example of an undrafted free agent paying off in a big way. This season could be his “breakout” where the broader NFL fandom hears about his success.
#3 - A.J. Johnson (LB, Denver Broncos)
A.J. Johnson continues a promising career as one of the starting linebackers in Denver. While he’s not considered elite, Johnson is one of the better options at the position and has begun to garner more attention around the league. He’s coming off a breakout 2020 season where he amassed an insane 124 combined tackles, to go along with two forced fumbles. Wherever there’s a tackle to be made, you can find Johnson’s jersey.
He is set to become a free agent after the 2021 season. If he follows up last year’s success, Johnson will be rewarded handsomely. By Denver—or another team.
#4 - Marquez Callaway (WR, New Orleans Saints)
This is an example of Tennessee fans knowing the truth before some NFL teams do. Marquez Callaway went undrafted in 2020, and signed with the New Orleans Saints shortly afterwards. In just a single year, he’s shown the Saints why he was a fan favorite at Tennessee. The reliable and athletic wideout made a splash in 2020, and is now receiving WR1 reps in Saints practice. Part of that is because their leading receiver Michael Thomas is injured. Yet even if Thomas was back, Callaway has done enough to fight for the WR2 spot. In the most recent preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Callaway hauled in two touchdown passes in highlight fashion.
His success continues to be a bright spot for the recent Tennessee-to-NFL players. That being said, you could argue Callaway is too high on the list as of now. After all, he’s only had a single season, where he barely eclipsed 200 yards.
Perhaps it is a bit premature. But given everything we’ve seen from him so far, this placement probably won’t seem so crazy after 2021 concludes.
#5 - Derek Barnett (DE, Philadelphia Eagles)
Barnett is entering a pivotal season of his NFL career. He hasn’t been a “bust” necessarily—but he hasn’t met the expectations of the Philadelphia Eagles. Through four years (but only 48 games), he has accumulated 101 tackles, 29 tackles-for-loss, and 19.5 sacks. Again, not bad. But he has yet to record a double digit sack season and has not played a full 16 games in any season of his career.
Barnett will be a free agent after 2021. If he has a decent upcoming year, he could be one of the more sought after defensive ends in the offseason. If not, he will likely take a team-friendly deal to stay in the league. He’s still done enough to place himself squarely in the middle of the list.
#6 - Cordarelle Patterson (WR, Atlanta Falcons)
Could you imagine making a pro career out of kick returns? Patterson is good enough to pull it off, already holding three NFL records relating to kickoff return touchdowns. He’s logged three different seasons with over 1,000 total return yards. Patterson contributes occasionally in other parts of the game, but none more than kickoffs.
Is it how we expected Patterson’s post-Tennessee career to go? Not really. But you can’t argue with the results so far—Patterson has spent eight seasons in the league and most recently signed a 1-year, $3 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons. It’s good to see his jaw dropping highlights didn’t end in Knoxville.
#7 - Shy Tuttle (DT, New Orleans Saints)
So far, the most notable play of Shy Tuttle’s career has been an interception where he stiff armed Matt Ryan into the mantle layer of the Earth. It’s a pretty cool highlight to be known for.
Beyond that, Tuttle has been able to lock down an interior spot along the New Orleans Saints defensive line. That’s pretty impressive when you consider he signed as an undrafted free agent, and has just been with the team for two seasons. He’s totaled 46 tackles and 5 tackles-for-loss in that timeframe, despite only starting four games. If he continues at the same pace of development, he could be rewarded with a nice contract at the end of 2021.
#8 - Cam Sutton (CB, Pittsburgh Steelers)
Sutton’s career to this point has been a slow burn. He’s been with the Pittsburgh Steelers for four years and has played in 52 games, starting eight of those. Going into the 2021 season, he is now regarded as Pittsburgh’s starting option at either an outside or nickel corner role. It took a while—and this season will determine his long term future with the team. Sutton is currently on a 2-year, $9 million contract.
#9 - Justin Coleman (CB, Miami Dolphins)
Just a few years ago, Coleman looked on track to be near the top of this list. He had just signed a 4-year, $36 million deal with Detroit Lions after some impressive seasons with the Seattle Seahawks in 2017 and 2018.
Unfortunately, things haven’t gone as planned. He had a couple of rough seasons in Detroit, ending in his eventual release. He signed with the Miami Dolphins on a 1-year, $2.75 million contract for the 2021 season. Preseason camp reports seem to suggest he’s done a good enough job to lock down the starting nickelback spot. It’ll be interesting to see if he can revive his career with this newest stop.
#10 - Ja’Wuan James (OT, Baltimore Ravens)
This ranking is a good example of just how quickly things can change. James is at risk of falling out completely.
At one point, you could argue that James was the second or third best NFL player from Tennessee. He had just signed a 4-year, $51 million deal with the Denver Broncos to be a cornerstone of their offensive line at right tackle. That was in March 2019.
Since then, James has suffered a knee injury, an Achilles injury, and opted out of the 2020 season. He is no longer with the Broncos, and has played in zero games since the 2019 season. He is now with the Baltimore Ravens, where he is coming off the COVID-19 list. The Ravens (and Tennessee fans in general) are hoping that James just needs a bit of a reset before he can go back to being a high-level starter in the NFL. But in order to do that, he needs to make a pretty strong comeback in these next couple of seasons.
Other Players Considered
Malik Jackson (DT, Cleveland Browns) - It would appear that Jackson’s NFL career is nearing its conclusion. After nine seasons of work, Jackson signed a one year contract with the Cleveland Browns and is probably not mounting a comeback anytime soon. The former Tennessee defensive tackle was once a hot commodity in free agency, and has both a Super Bowl ring and a Pro Bowl to his name. In 126 career appearances, he has garnered 267 tackles, 61 tackles-for-loss, and 35 sacks.
Daniel McCullers (DT, FA) - It’s fair to say that McCullers has lasted longer in the league than most Tennessee fans expected. He’s played seven seasons and appeared in over 70 games, mainly as a situational defensive tackle. He was last seen trying out at the Baltimore Ravens minicamp.
Best Chance to Join After 2021
Trey Smith (OL, Kansas City Chiefs) - The fan favorite is already making waves in Kansas City. The Chiefs got arguably the biggest offensive line steal of the draft when Smith fell to them in the 6th round. As long as he can stay healthy, Smith should have a long career in the NFL.
Darrell Taylor (DE/OLB, Seattle Seahawks) - One of the major disappointments of the 2020 season was seeing that Darrell Taylor suffered a leg injury, and would not be available for the Seattle Seahawks. Now, Taylor is healed up and fighting for reps at both strongside linebacker and defensive end—a perfect situation for his skillset. Here’s to hoping he stays injury-free in 2021 and can finally show his potential.
Josh Palmer (WR, Los Angeles Chargers) - Another 2021 draftee getting good preseason reports is Palmer. Apparently he has already impressed the coaching staff, and built a strong relationship with quarterback Justin Herbert.