Phil Fulmer's first full recruiting class (1994) yielded three players who were first-round picks in the 1998 draft – quarterback Peyton Manning, cornerback Terry Fair and wide receiver Marcus Nash. That class also produced two third-rounders (defensive ends Leonard Little and Jonathan Brown).
The 1999 draft saw the Vols provide a first-rounder (linebacker Al Wilson), a second-rounder (receiver Peerless Price) and a third-rounder (running back Shawn Bryson). All have gone on to enjoy fine pro careers.
The 2000 draft had a decidedly orange tint. Tailback Jamal Lewis and defensive end Shaun Ellis were first-round picks, while linebacker Raynoch Thompson, offensive tackle Chad Clifton, guard Cosey Coleman, cornerback Dwayne Goodrich and safety Deon Grant were second-rounders. Defensive tackle Darwin Walker went in Round 3, giving Tennessee eight picks on Day 1 of the draft.
Given how much talent the Vols lost to the 2000 draft, it isn't surprising that the pickings were slim for the 2001 draft. Still, tailback Travis Henry went in Round 2 and linebacker Eric Westmoreland followed in Round 3.
Tennessee had reloaded by the 2002 draft, with three Vols going in the first 15 picks – defensive tackles John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth, along with wideout Donte Stallworth. Two more UT players, guard Fred Weary and defensive end Will Overstreet, were third-rounders. All are still playing except Overstreet, whose promising career was cut short by injury.
No program in America produced more NFL-caliber players between 1997 and 2001 than Tennessee, as evidenced by the drafts held between 1998 and 2002. But the well seems to have run dry. Consider how few first-day picks (Rounds 1, 2, 3) the Vols have produced in the four years since then:
One first-rounder: Defensive back Jason Allen (2006)
The 2006 draft saw just five Vols chosen in seven rounds. All five were defensive players. Not one offensive player was worthy of an NFL draft pick, which helps explain how Tennessee averaged a paltry 18.6 points per game last fall en route to a 5-6 record.
The numbers suggest a troubling trend. After producing nine first-round draft picks between 1998 and 2002, Tennessee has produced just one in the four years since then. And, after producing 23 first-day picks from 1998 to 2002, the Vols have produced just seven in the four years since.
Clearly, there's more to judging a program's talent level than simply calculating how many NFL Draft picks it produces. But consider this: The five seasons (1997-2001) when Tennessee was overflowing with future pros produced a 54-11 record, an 83.1 winning percentage, two SEC titles and a national championship. The four years since produced a 33-17 record, a 66.0 winning percentage and no titles.