Tennessee's reputation for cranking out NFL players isn't hype. It's as real as getting sacked by Reggie White.
In honor of the 2011 draft starting tonight, I sorted through the past 30 years of Vol draftees to determine the 10 most valuable picks.
Why only 30 years? I'm old but not old enough to judge Doug Atkins' career.
Here are my criteria:
We're not talking the 10 best careers, per se. We're talking bargains - value related to the placement of the pick. A first-rounder can be a bargain if he delivers at a high level over time. But a fifth-round guy who was at least close to being as productive as a second-round guy was the better bargain of the two.
Emphasis was placed on value returned to the club that drafted a player rather than what he might have done later with another team. Darwin Walker, for example, was cut by Arizona before becoming a starter with the Eagles. Fuad Reveiz was good in Miami, but even better after moving to Minnesota.
Free agents don't count. They weren't drafted. Thus no Bill Bates.
So where's the afore-mentioned White, the Minister of Defense? He first played in the USFL and later went to the Eagles in the supplemental draft.
Where's Eric Berry? Too soon. I'm sure if I repeat this exercise in five years, Berry will be high on the list. Jerod Mayo, too.
My top 10 includes four offensive linemen, four first-rounders and three Vols from the mother of all UT drafts, 2000.
The most valuable pick is:
Peyton Manning. Duh.
Manning is UT's highest draft pick, going No. 1 in 1998. (He shares the distinction with George Cafego in 1940.) He's been worth every dollar Indianapolis spends, and not just because he's passed for a trillion yards.
A four-time league MVP, he has started every game for 13 consecutive seasons. His team has won double-digit games 11 times, most of any quarterback in the Super Bowl Era.
In 2009, Fox Sports declared him NFL player of the decade. At his relatively advanced age, The Sporting News still ranked him the NFL's top player last season. Where are the Colts without him? Probably in Los Angeles.
Here are my other nine selections, in chronological order:
Tim Irwin. The 74th pick (3rd Round) in 1981 by Minnesota. Irwin started all 16 games at offensive tackle for 10 consecutive years. Last year he was named one of the "50 Greatest Vikings.''
Raleigh McKenzie. The 290th pick (11th Round) in 1985 by Washington. In his 10 years with the Redskins he started at all five positions on the offensive line and that includes two Super Bowl victories. Maybe the bargain-basement Vol of all time.
Leonard Little. The 65th pick (3rd Round) in 1998 by St. Louis. Little was considered a tweener (defensive end or linebacker?) but the Rams traded up to get him and were glad they did. He started 98 games, compiled 87.5 sacks, leading the team in sacks six times. He was All-Pro once.
Al Wilson: The 31st pick (1st Round) by Denver in 1999. Injuries limited Wilson's career to eight seasons but all eight were as a Bronco and as a starter. Plus, he made the Pro Bowl in five of them. That's a bargain, even for a first-rounder.
Jamal Lewis. The fifth pick (1st Round) in 2000 by Baltimore. Lewis did what he was drafted to do, providing seven years as the workhorse tailback. As a rookie he helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl. He was NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2003, a season in which he broke the NFL single-game rushing record with 295 yards and barely missed the single-season record with 2,066. He was voted second-team NFL All-Decade for the 2000s and ranks 21st on the all-time rushing chart.
Shaun Ellis. The 12th pick (1st Round) in 2000 by the Jets. Ellis is a two-time Pro Bowler who has started the past 154 consecutive games at defensive end. The longest-tenured Jet, Ellis is still going strong in search of his 73rd career sack. Gets the nod for longevity over fellow first-rounder John Henderson.
Chad Clifton. The 44th pick (2nd Round) in 2000 by Green Bay. Like his contemporary Ellis, Clifton keeps on ticking. He's started 154 games at left tackle for the same team, played in two Pro Bowls and helped the Packers win the most recent Super Bowl.
Jason Witten. The 69th pick (3rd Round) in 2003 by Dallas. Seven Pro Bowls in seven years makes Witten one of the elite tight ends of all time. He's had three seasons of 90 or more catches, including 94 in each of the past two years.
Scott Wells. The 251st pick (7th Round) in 2004 by Green Bay. Wells battled from the practice squad to win the center job his second season and has 84 starts under his belt, all for the Packers. He rarely gives up a sack or a penalty.