Tennessee has not had a player drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft since Derek Barnett was selected 14th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017. It is easy to think that trend will change in the 2021 NFL Draft. Tennessee's Jauan Jennings and Darrell Taylor heard their names called in this year's draft, but the Volunteers could see more plays called in the first round of 2021's Draft than they heard in 2020. I examine the three players who could come off the board early in next year's draft.
The obvious first choice is Trey Smith. He was arguably the best interior offensive lineman last season, and when healthy, he has been a staple in Tennessee's offensive attack. Smith would have gone in the first round this season had it not of been for health concerns. He appears to be on the proper regimen, and if he performs at his usual level in 2020, he will hear his name called early in next year's draft.
Early 2021 mock drafts are already coming out, and Cade Mays is slated to go in the first round in a majority of them. The biggest question with Mays is will he get to play in 2020 after transferring away from Georgia. Right now, it appears the NCAA is going to approve the one-time transfer rule for the 2020 season later next month. Which means that Mays will be eligible to play right away in Knoxville. His talent is undoubted, and he will get a chance to put it on display next year. He was known as the 'utility guy' in Georgia's offensive line rotation for two seasons, and that only helps his stock. In an offensive line class that is not loaded with talent, Mays could easily be a first-round talent.
Finally, the third player who could creep into the first round is Bryce Thompson. Thompson has been a star under Jeremy Pruitt after converting to cornerback. Expect him to see time in the return game this season, which will improve his stock, but he should be one of the top players on a defense that returns a chunk of production. Thompson should be the first defensive back drafted in Jeremy Pruitt's tenure, and he could very well join the first-rounders that produced is used to producing. Corners are coveted in today's football world, and he is a guy who can significantly improve his stock in 2021. Thompson will face some of the best receivers in the country during the 2020 season, and if he wins his fair share of battles, he will be a guy with some buzz around him at the end of the season.