(Updated May 1 after Steelers release of Zach Mettenberger)
Let’s study what each situation looks like for the six University of Tennessee football players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Charles Davis was kind enough to share with me, this weekend, his thoughts on each of the Vols and their landing spots. Many of you saw the VFL/Vols DB great on the NFL Network as a draft analyst all three days of the NFL Draft. Charles is also a terrific game analyst for NFL games on FOX. We thank Charles for the exclusive quotes for this story on SportsRadioWNML.com.
Below you’ll find Charles’ analysis on each of the drafted Vols players, the depth chart at their positions, what the competition is like for playing time, whether there’s a legit opportunity to start, their new coaches and overall chance for success with each team to start their NFL careers.
Philadelphia Eagles (1st Rd, #14)
Eagles in 2016: 7-9
Here are all the defensive ends on the Eagles roster (H/W/Age/Years)…
96 Derek Barnett DE 6-3 268 20 R Tennessee
75 Vinny Curry DE 6-3 279 28 6 Marshall
55 Brandon Graham DE 6-2 265 29 8 Michigan
56 Chris Long DE 6-3 270 32 10 Virginia
57 Alex McCalister DE 6-6 239 23 2 Florida
51 Steven Means DE 6-3 263 26 3 Buffalo
90 Marcus Smith DE 6-3 251 25 4 Louisville
Charles Davis: “Excellent situation…tremendous worker and talent, matches with creative, aggressive defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz who will put him in situations that play to his main strength, rushing the passer. Blue-collar city/fans will welcome this blue-collar effort player with open arms (especially if he produces double digit sacks.) He must set a strong edge in the run game, as Dallas “runs” the NFC East currently. Washington, and the Giants drafted RB’s too.”
Vince’s View: This is a fantastic team for Barnett to land with. His constant motor, no-nonsense approach and talent will be loved by the Philly faithful. Plus, the pass rush had to be addressed.
This group has solid veterans, but lacking difference-makers. Barnett has the chance to be just that. Chris Long was signed as a free agent from the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. He was tied for third on the team in sacks with 4 in 2016. Brandon Graham had the most sacks among the Eagles defensive ends in 2016 with 5.5. Long and Graham are projected starters going into the off-season camps, with Barnett certain to be in the rotation. If Barnett impresses in rookie mini-camp, the ultra-high expectations with Reggie White comparisons (as he had later in his career at UT) will climb and Barnett will move-up the depth chart quickly.
The coaching Barnett will receive in Philadelphia will be terrific with DC Jim Schwartz and DL coach Chris Wilson who has coached in the SEC at Mississippi State, Georgia and Missouri.
Barnett will already have some of the technique of the “wide nine” stance you see the Eagles take where the defensive ends are wider than the outside shoulder of the tackle. That will keep Barnett from getting double-teamed by guards. They also are in a fist-down stance, which Barnett has done at times at UT. Barnett can set the edge as well and defend the run. There were times at UT where he did get pushed wide, away from the play with teams running back to his gap. He should be able to clean that up with stout teammates he didn’t have late in the year with all the injuries on the Vols defense.
Another plus about the situation is Barnett getting to line-up along the d-line and perhaps side-by-side with an elite defensive tackle like Fletcher Cox. They will help each other be better, which is exciting for both of them and the Eagles.
I expect Derek Barnett to have an initial early adjustment, but then show his worth in the second half of the season.
New Orleans Saints (3rd Rd, #67)
Saints in 2016: 7-9
Here are all the running backs on the Saints roster (H/W/Age/Years)…
— Alvin Kamara RB 5’10 214 R Tennessee
38 Travaris Cadet RB 6-1 210 28 6 Appalachian State
22 Mark Ingram RB 5-9 215 27 7 Alabama
36 Daniel Lasco RB 6-1 205 24 1 California
23 Marcus Murphy RB/RS 5-9 195 25 3 Missouri
— Adrian Peterson RB 6-1 220 32 11 Oklahoma
Charles Davis: “Drafted later than I expected, but the offset is nothing but positive. A multi-talented RB that can do it all that will run plays designed by one of the most creative play designers/callers in the NFL in New Orleans head coach Sean Payton. Close your eyes, and see Reggie Bush at his best in a Saints uniform…and, this iteration could be better. When the Saints won the Super Bowl, they had a strong RB rotation (3-4 contributed), and finished 6th in the NFL in rushing. Also, envision Kamara running routes lining up as a RB, slot, and outside receiver, even some plays normally run by a flexed TE. Think mismatch opportunities being sought each down he’s on the field.”
Vince’s View: The Saints were the first team to work Kamara out. According to NFL Reporter Jennifer Hale, the Kamara work came after seeing him catch passes and run routes during their workout with Josh Dobbs. That’s impressive. The Saints also traded up to draft Kamara.
We poke fun at Butch Jones for usually not divulging much information about his team or his players, but he tipped us to the Saints’ interest. Jones did tell us at our annual company luncheon that the Saints annually take a special tour of the schools they think will have the best NFL prospects and this year they visited UT in Knoxville. Sean Payton and the Saints took nine Vols draft prospects out to dinner to get to know them. Jones said Sean Payton told him the Vols players were the most cohesive, tight, impressive group he had ever seen. That stuff doesn’t always translate into draft picks, but in this case it did with Kamara.
The top four backs last season combined for 463 touches, rushing and receiving, on offense. Mark Ingram is coming off the best season of his career (1,043 yards rushing, 10 total TDs and 251 touches.) What the Saints would like to do is maybe not have to rely on Ingram for that kind of workload and more importantly, have more explosiveness and productivity with their 2nd and 3rd backs. Enter Adrian Peterson. Enter Alvin Kamara.
The Saints threw the ball 270 more times than they ran it in 2016. That’s ok for Kamara who ran run the full route great and has great hands. You’ll see him split out wide quite a bit in addition to catching passes out of the backfield. More balance is desired in the offense as well, and with the help of Kamara and Peterson, they should be able to achieve that.
Kamara can help in the return game as well, where New Orleans did not have a return for a touchdown.
We know head coach Sean Payton has his hands all over the offense, but Kamara will also be coached by: Pete Carmichael (OC), Joel Thomas (RBs), Curtis Johnson (WRs) and Bradford Banta (STC.)
Despite all the competition in this year’s New Orleans backfield, there will definitely be a role for Kamara, especially initially on third down. Expect a great rookie season for the versatile and electric Alvin Kamara.
Pittsburgh Steelers (3rd Rd, #94)
Steelers in 2016: 13-6, lost in AFC Championship Game
Here are all the cornerbacks on the Steelers roster (H/W/Age/Years)…
— Cameron Sutton CB 5-11 188 22 R Tennessee
25 Artie Burns CB 6-0 197 21 2 Miami (FL)
31 Ross Cockrell CB 6-0 191 25 4 Duke
35 Brandon Dixon CB 5-11 203 27 2 Northwest Missouri State
— Greg Ducre CB 5-10 183 25 3 Washington
22 William Gay CB 5-10 187 32 11 Louisville
27 Senquez Golson CB 5-9 176 23 3 Mississippi
40 Mike Hilton CB 5-9 184 23 1 Mississippi
— Devonte Johnson CB 6-0 180 24 0 Weber State
— Coty Sensabaugh CB 5-11 187 28 5 Clemson
20 Al-Hajj Shabazz CB 6-2 200 24 2 West Chester (PA)
— Brian Allen DB 6-3 215 23 R Utah
— Terrish Webb DB 5-10 227 R Pittsburgh
Charles Davis: “For all the talk about him being a “tweener,” Pittsburgh will find plenty of ways to utilize this talented, aggressive CB/Nickel/Safety who reminds me a bit of Cortland Finnegan in playing demeanor. I envision him competing right away to cover the slot receivers, and play some safety in sub packages in a creative, pressure system that Pittsburgh prefers. Must (and can) be a good tackler in the run game as the AFC North’s reputation for bruising running games is real (Cincinnati, Baltimore, and yes, Cleveland all want to establish a physical run game, with all playing in cold weather cities, and open air stadiums…November, December, January, Brrr.)”
Vince’s View: All off-season at every opportunity to talk about Cam Sutton in the draft (and even written about it on my blog multiple times) I have said that he had Pittsburgh Steelers written all over him. You look at his intangibles, his versatility, his toughness, his tackling ability, the defensive schemes in coverage of the Steelers…it all makes him a perfect Steeler.
I wondered if they would ultimately draft him because of all they’ve invested in the secondary through draft picks and free agency the last few years. Selecting Sutton in the 3rd round shows just how much they like him, and see him helping the team this year.
Butch Jones also tipped us to the Steelers interest in Cam Sutton pre-draft. He told us in that same company luncheon referenced above, and on SportsTalk last Friday, that the Steelers tested Sutton on his knowledge of some NFL plays. He was so good in explaining what they asked him to do that they felt like he was too rehearsed and prepared, so they asked him about some specific plays from the 2nd quarter of the Music City Bowl that they thought he wouldn’t expect. He aced that test too. They knew then that Cam Sutton was the real deal.
Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns are returning starters. They were generally good last season, but the entire secondary was exposed in the AFC Championship Game.
Keith Butler is the Steelers defensive coordinator and Carnell Lake will be Sutton’s position coach with the DBs.
Sutton’s versatility will help him find an immediate role. He’ll also be a candidate in the punt return game where he was special his junior year. I can’t wait to see him with that helmet on, because it is such a perfect fit.
Detroit Lions (4th Rd, #124)
Lions in 2016: 9-8, lost in the Wild Card Round
Here are all the outside linebackers on the Lions roster (H/W/Age/Years)…
— Jalen Reeves-Maybin LB 6-0 230 R Tennessee
50 Thurston Armbrister LB 6-3 246 24 3 Miami (Fla.)
58 Steve Longa LB 6-0 241 22 1 Rutgers
52 Antwione Williams LB 6-3 239 23 2 Georgia Southern
55 Paul Worrilow LB 6-0 230 26 5 Delaware
Charles Davis: “Special teams will be his immediate ticket to playing time, and there is also a need, and an opportunity to play in the Nickel or Sub packages as a fleet LB who can cover, blitz, and rush the passer off the edge. Must spend the time in the weight room getting stronger, and continuing to rehab his shoulder/upper body. Becoming a starter is not out of the question, as the Lions need more speed at the second level.”
Vince’s View: Reeves-Maybin was incredibly productive at Tennessee, rarely coming off the field on defense or special teams. He loves football, has great character, has excellent instincts and is a leader. The Lions seemed like a nice fit going into the draft because of need and Reeves-Maybin’s skill set, so it was good to see him taken by Detroit, and picked earlier in the draft than many thought.
As you can see, this position group of outside backers is void of big-name players or Pro Bowl studs. Worrilow is a good player who was signed from the Falcons. After that, there’s a path for playing time if Reeves-Maybin can develop, get stronger and stay healthy.
Reeves-Maybin is not only a willing special teams player, but he’s great at it. You saw teams start to draft for special teams on the third day, and I think the Lions definitely saw that ability in him.
JRM will get to work with highly regarded Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, linebackers coach Bill Sheridan and special teams coordinator Joe Marciano.
He’ll certainly contribute on special teams from the jump. The outside linebacker role will grow in time when those “ifs” come through like he plans.
Cincinnati Bengals (4th Rd, #128)
Bengals in 2016: 6-9-1
Here are all the wide receivers on the Bengals roster (H/W/Age/Years)…
— Josh Malone WR 6-3 208 R Tennessee
83 Tyler Boyd WR 6-2 197 22 2 Pittsburgh
88 Chris Brown WR 6-1 191 23 2 Notre Dame
16 Cody Core WR 6-3 210 23 2 Mississippi
12 Alex Erickson WR 6-0 195 24 2 Wisconsin
18 A.J. Green WR 6-4 210 28 7 Georgia
84 Jake Kumerow WR 6-4 206 25 1 Wisconsin-Whitewater
11 Brandon LaFell WR 6-3 210 30 8 Louisiana State
— John Ross WR 5-11 188 22 R Washington
17 Alonzo Russell WR 6-4 206 24 1 Toledo
Charles Davis: “I said it when he was drafted, and I stand by my words…I see him being a better pro than more highly touted WR’s from Rocky Top like Robert Meachem and Justin Hunter with one caveat…How badly does he want it? If the word is VERY, then look for him to develop well, and add to the speed upgrade on the perimeter that Cincinnati was seeking when they drafted John Ross from Washington in the first round.”
Vince’s View: As you can see, this is a huge group of wide receivers in numbers. Star AJ Green, talented second-year receiver Tyler Boyd, veteran Brandon LaFell and first round draft pick John Ross should be the top four receivers.
Malone will compete with former Ole Miss receiver Cody Core and the rest for the 5th wide receiver spot. That doesn’t bring a ton of opportunities, but he’ll have to make the most of them.
Ken Zampese will be Josh Malone’s offensive coordinator, while James Urban is his wide receivers coach.
Malone has always practiced returning kicks at UT, but never had the opportunity to do that. I wonder if that could be an option as an extra value reserve receivers typically need to bring with limited rosters in the NFL.
Malone has the talent and the confidence to succeed in the NFL. I believe he will out-perform recent UT wide receivers Justin Hunter, Da’Rick Rogers and Cordarrelle Patterson. We’ll see how quick his opportunities will come.
Pittsburgh Steelers (4th Rd, #135)
Steelers in 2016: 13-6, lost in AFC Championship Game
Here are all the quarterbacks on the Steelers roster (H/W/Age/Years)…
— Joshua Dobbs QB 6-3 216 22 R Tennessee
3 Landry Jones QB 6-4 225 28 5 Oklahoma
7 Ben Roethlisberger QB 6-5 240 35 14 Miami (Ohio)
— Nick Schuessler QB 6-3 196 R Clemson
Charles Davis: “Creativity will be on display if, and when, Josh Dobbs gets on the field. I expect Pittsburgh to take full advantage of his arm, legs and mind. He will immediately compete with incumbent Landry Jones to back up Big Ben Roethlisberger. It will be a big transition from college spread QB to pro-style Steelers QB (Footwork, footwork, footwork, which will lead to a better deep ball, and overall accuracy). But, what really attracted the Steelers was talent, toughness and off the chart intangibles and upon meeting him, an obvious love of the game of football, which really was on display in the run up to the draft. During Senior Bowl practices, no QB got better that week.”
Vince’s View: Josh Dobbs was expected by some to go in day two of the draft, in the 2nd or 3rd round. The tough thing about that prospect was that teams desperate for a QB would have likely selected him, and he may have ended up with a bad team that needed him to play sooner rather than later. Instead, Dobbs ends up with a fantastic organization that’s Super Bowl ready and has four other U. of Tennessee players on it including Cam Sutton.
The Steelers have a top-level quarterback in Roethlisberger, but the back-up situation is shaky. Landry Jones has had plenty of opportunities to play, but has been underwhelming. Dobbs’ selection shows they want competition that they haven’t had for that back-up QB position. Nick Schuessler was Deshaun Watson’s back-up quarterback at Clemson that was signed as an undrafted free agent. He played in 5 games and threw 17 passes in his college career. He’s maybe a practice squad candidate at best.
Mike Tomlin had a first-hand look at Josh Dobbs putting on an absolute show at Tennessee’s Pro Day. Dobbs was 54-of-57 passing according to one UT account. About Dobbs, Tomlin told the NFL Network…”He’s driven in all the right ways. We just see that there’s a lot of upside in this young man.”
Seeing where Josh Dobbs has come from since his final game for Tennessee in Nashville has been impressive. He’s tightened the mechanics in his throwing motion, sped-up his release, created a repeatable passing delivery, solidified his footwork in drops from under center and thus has improved his accuracy. He’s had a very light class load at UT, which has given him the time to work on his craft and get better. He’ll be able to concentrate on football in the NFL and get elite coaching.
His new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, is a very demanding coach, but one that has had success developing quarterbacks in the NFL. Randy Fichtner will be his quarterbacks coach.
There will be a lot of attention on Dobbs in Pittsburgh this off-season. Roethlisberger’s year-to-year decision on whether to continue playing will eventually end in him hanging it up…that, and he gets hurt almost every year.
There’s a legit opportunity for Dobbs to either start the season as the active third quarterback (some teams only carry two QBs) or even as the back-up if he’s impressive in camp.