If you follow any of Tennessee’s football accounts on social media, you’ve likely seen their sales pitch to potential recruits this week: Come to Tennessee, and we can get you to the NFL.
Years ago, that was very true. The Vols used to be one of the top producers of NFL talent in college football. Tennessee had one of the longest streaks in college football history when it came to having at least one player drafted into the NFL. For 50 years, at least one Vol was selected in the NFL Draft every single year.
That streak came to a halt in 2015. Then in 2016, Tennessee again had nobody drafted. But the Vols’ slide in producing NFL players took a hit long before those two years.
Dating back 30, 40, or even 50 years ago, Tennessee is still one of the top schools in college football at getting players into the NFL. In fact, the Vols have even had 79 players drafted into the NFL since 2000, averaging just over four players taken in every draft over the last 19 drafts.
But recruits don’t care about what happened 20 or 30 years ago. To them, Tennessee’s recent history of getting their top players drafted has been pretty disappointing.
I took a look at how Tennessee compares to the other 13 SEC teams when it comes to having players drafted into the NFL in the first three rounds over the last five years and over the last 10 years. I chose those time frames because they’re good examples of both recent success (five years) and fairly sustainable success (10 years). Plus, the vast majority of players who have been drafted prior to the 2009 draft (10 years ago) aren’t in the NFL any longer, and it’s unlikely that current 16 and 17-year-old recruits will know or care as much about those results when coaches try to sell them on a school’s ability to get players into the NFL.
For example, Tennessee only has two players still in the NFL who were drafted before the 2009 draft. Those two players are punter Dustin Colquitt and tight end Jason Witten, who just came back out of retirement after spending a year away from the game.
Similarly, I chose to just look at the first three rounds because those are the “high value” rounds in the draft. The first round has its own day dedicated to it, and the second and third rounds have a day for them as well. A lot of schools can get lucky and produce fourth or fifth-round picks or have players taken in the later rounds, but the top schools are the best at producing players who get selected in the first two days of the draft.
In the last five years (2014-18) prior to this year’s NFL Draft, the Vols have had just two players selected in the first round and have only had five total players drafted in the first three rounds. Tennessee’s two first-round picks over the last five years are Ja’Wuan James (2014, 19th overall) and Derek Barnett (2017, 14th overall).
Over the last 10 years (2009-18), Tennessee has only had six players drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft and only 12 players taken in the first three rounds.
For comparison, Missouri has had more first-round picks (7) over the last 10 years than Tennessee, and Ole Miss has had as many players drafted in the first three rounds (12) as the Vols in that same span. The Rebels have actually had more first-round selections (4) in the last five years than the Vols.
Tennessee is tied with Auburn, South Carolina, and Missouri for seventh in the SEC when it comes to producing first-round picks over the last five years. The Vols’ six first-round selections over the last 10 years is tied with Ole Miss for seventh in the conference over the last 10 years. Only four teams (South Carolina, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky) have had fewer players drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft over the last five years than the Vols.
When you look at how far off the Vols are from the top teams in the SEC at producing high-end NFL talent, it’s pretty staggering.
Alabama is obviously at the top of college football when it comes to having players drafted over the last decade. The Tide have had 12 players taken in the first round over the last five years, and they’ve seen 26 players drafted in the first round over the last 10 years. In fact, Alabama has had more players drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft over the last five years (27) than the Vols have had drafted in all seven rounds over the last decade (26).
Florida has had a player taken in the first round of the draft for six-straight seasons despite not having the greatest on-field results to reflect that. They have the second-most first-round picks over the last decade (14) in the SEC.
Georgia will start piling up these numbers in the coming years, but their totals are still pretty impressive. The Bulldogs have had five players taken in the first round over the last five years, and 10 Bulldogs have been selected in the first round over the last 10 years.
Here’s a full table showing the breakdown of first-round picks and players drafted in the first three rounds over the last five and 10 years in the SEC:
|TEAM||1st Round Picks Since 2014||Players Drafted in first 3 Rounds Since 2014||1st Round Picks Since 2009||Players Drafted in first 3 Rounds Since 2009|
Tennessee’s current coaching staff has done a superb job of getting players drafted into the NFL at their previous stops. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt himself has helped 44 different players get drafted into the league as a coordinator and assistant coach. But when it comes to selling Tennessee’s recent history with the NFL, UT’s coaches have to get a little more creative with their pitch.
Unless a recruit grew up in Tennessee or was raised in a household that watched a lot of Tennessee football, they aren’t going to know about how good the Vols were in the early-mid 2000s or in the 1990s. They’re going to know the Vols from the last 10 years, and the last 10 years haven’t been kind to Tennessee in a number of areas. One of those areas is having players taken in the NFL Draft.
None of this is the fault of any of Tennessee’s current coaches, but it is a problem they have to deal with. The Vols will be lucky to have a player selected in the draft this year, in fact. If Tennessee doesn’t have a player drafted, it’ll mark the third time in the last five years that a Vol has failed to get selected in the NFL Draft.
The future holds a lot of promise for the Vols in football, and Pruitt and his staff certainly look like they can fix this particular issue. But for now, it’s getting harder and harder to sell Tennessee as a school that’s better than the majority of SEC programs at getting players into the NFL.