KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Butch Jones has brought the Vols back into relevance, and the upcoming NFL draft will indicate as much.
Six of Jones’ recruits performed at the NFL combine last week and earlier this week, and while all showed relatively well, some were more impressive than others.
Defensive end Derek Barnett tops the list and figures to give Tennessee its first first-round NFL draft pick since 2014, when offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James was picked 19th by the Miami Dolphins.
Barnett, the school’s all-time sacks leader, could be the Vols’ first top-15 pick since Eric Berry was chosen fifth by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Here’s a look at what went good — and bad — for the Tennessee players at the NFL combine:
Tennessee DE Derek Barnett
Tennessee’s gritty defensive end showed his toughness in Indianapolis, running the 40-yard dash and testing out less than 24 hours after suffering flu-like effects.
Barnett said it was a matter of the NFL combine being “an important job interview,” exhibiting the same sense of duty that led him to help lead the Vols to their third-straight bowl victory rather than sit out, like some other projected first-round picks.
Barnett’s 40-yard dash times were decent – 4.88 and 4.92 seconds — but it was his mindset and approach that most impressed NFL coaches and analysts.
The NFL combine was not expected to be the strongest part of the draft evaluation process for Barnett, but he fared well enough to keep the focus on his game film, which does not lie.
Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara
Kamara’s 39.5-inch vertical leap was the best among running backs and provided an indication of his explosive athleticism.
NFL teams like the versatility Kamara brings to the backfield and the positive attitude he customarily displays, but there are enough concerns to keep him out of the first round.
Kamara’s 40-yard dash time of 4.56 seconds was only mediocre, and he had ball security issues at Tennessee that a combine workout cannot undo.
If Kamara gets drafted in the second round that would be a strong scenario that he and his camp should feel good about. A third-round grade is more likely unless he can drop that 40 time into the mid-4.4 range at pro day.
Tennessee QB Josh Dobbs
Dobbs tested out near the top of the charts among quarterbacks in all of the NFL combine events, even bettering national championship quarterback Deshaun Watson, much to the chagrin of Clemson fans.
But the most important thing Dobbs did well was throw the football in an environment where NFL coaches and scouts could compare him side-by-side to other QB prospects.
Dobbs’ athleticism and acumen make him the sort of NFL prospect teams feel comfortable taking on in somewhat of a developmental role.
Dobbs checks all the boxes with his intelligence, athleticism and work ethic, and he told SEC country he felt his team interviews also went extremely well.
Tennessee DB Cam Sutton
Sutton added 5 much-needed pounds since his impressive Senior Bowl week in January (now 5-11, 188), but his 40-yard dash time (4.52 seconds) was not as fast as he is capable of running.
Sutton moved up on NFL draft boards at the Senior Bowl when he showed he could play safety and nickel, and well as cornerback. Many NFL teams also recognize Sutton’s elite skills as a return man, as he showed soft hands and great vision at Tennessee his junior season in that capacity.
Sutton will likely look to make the most of Tennessee’s March 31 pro day, as he continues his comeback from a broken fibula suffered last September against Ohio.
Tennessee WR Josh Malone
Malone’s 4.40-second 40-yard dash time was third-fastest among the receivers, and when his prototypical size (6-3, 208) is added to the mix, more than one NFL team will go back and review his film from last season.
Malone went from undrafted free-agent stock to sure-fire NFL draft pick with his 40-yard dash, though he will likely want to repeat his modest vertical jump (30.5 inches) at Tennessee’s pro day.
Malone’s decision to turn pro can still be debated, as a senior season with more consistency and yards after catches would have impressed teams.
Further, Malone’s comment at the combine that he wanted to avoid the “growing pains” of a new quarterback was weak, and likely straight out of the agent’s mouth that convinced him to forego a degree and turn pro early.
Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Jalen Reeves-Maybin did everything he could to play football for Tennessee in 2016, but once he donned the green no-contact jersey things were never the same for him.
To be fair, it’s hard for an injured player to lead any team, much less a football team.
Also, Reeves-Maybin’s use of the green jersey was much more legit than some of his teammates, who seemed to treat it more like a status symbol than injury designation.
A freakish athlete and tackling machine when healthy, the most important part of the NFL combine for Reeves-Maybin will be the medical testing he undergoes in Indianapolis.
The medical portion is obviously the most veiled and least-reported on part of the NFL combine, but for many players like Reeves-Maybin it’s the most important and will have the greatest effect on his draft stock.
Reeves-Maybin told SEC Country he was at “about 90 percent” in his recovery, so he did not test out. Chances are, he will perform some drills at UT pro day to help secure NFL draft status and avoid going the free-agent route.
Tennessee Vols Combine results
(Jalen Reeves-Maybin did not test)
WR Josh Malone, 4.40 seconds
CB Cam Sutton, 4.52 seconds
RB Alvin Kamara, 4.56 seconds
QB Josh Dobbs, 4.64 seconds
DL Derek Barnett, 4.88 seconds
RB Alvin Kamara 39.5 inches
CB Cam Sutton 34 inches
QB Josh Dobbs 33.0 inches
DL Derek Barnett 31.0 inches
WR Josh Malone 30.5 inches
RB Alvin Kamara 133 inches
QB Josh Dobbs 124 inches
WR Josh Malone 123 inches
DB Cam Sutton 120 inches
DL Derek Barnett 117 inches
RB Alvin Kamara 15 reps of 225 pounds
CB Cam Sutton 11 reps of 225 pounds
WR Josh Malone 10 reps of 225 pounds
DL Derek Barnett (Did Not Lift)
QB Josh Dobbs (Did Not Lift)