With a background as a nationally rated NFL Draft prognosticator, this season I’ll be taking a weekly look at Michigan State’s top rated prospects that will be draft eligible following the 2015 season to see where they project in the NFL Draft. As the season progresses, I’ll also evaluate some of the Spartans’ top underclassmen based upon how they’ve been playing.
1. Jack Conklin, Jr., LT: The Spartans desperately need their anchor at left tackle in Jack Conklin back for the Michigan game. Kodi Kieler struggled early against Rutgers after coming back from his own injury while trying to replace Conklin at left tackle. With whiffs in both pass protection and run blocking, Kieler is better suited playing on the right side than the left. While Jack Allen once again moved outside to tackle after Kieler struggled, he and the Spartans are definitely better off when he’s able to stay at center, his natural position. Conklin could also use a strong game against a dominant defense like Michigan to show that he is back and fully recovered from the knee injury that has kept him out of action since the Air Force game, and even if he’s not quite 100%, scouts will definitely want to see if he’s willing to tough it out in a rivalry game.
Current Draft Projection: Early 1st round. Status unchanged.
2. Connor Cook, Sr., QB: Like Michigan State’s entire offensive line, Connor Cook struggled against the blitz versus Rutgers, particularly in the first half. While there were times when Cook saw pressure immediately upon dropping back, he needs to do a better job of identifying the blitz and checking to a hot read going forward, as teams will continue to bring pressure from their back seven if they sense that Cook and his blockers can’t handle it. Cook capped off an underwhelming first half by uncharacteristically staring down tight end Jamal Lyles, pointing to him before throwing a pass into triple coverage that was intercepted in the end zone. Fortunately for the Spartans, Cook came back sharp in the second half, confidently zipping pinpoint passes to his receivers and running the ball to help Michigan State avoid Rutgers’ upset bid. Perhaps most impressive were the perfect throws that Cook made in key 3rd and 4th down situations when the Spartans absolutely needed to keep drives alive.
Current Draft Projection: 1st round. Status unchanged.
3. Shilique Calhoun, Sr., DE: Aside from a combining with Chris Frey on a sack early in the game, Shilique Calhoun was not much of a factor in the return to his home state of New Jersey against Rutgers. Calhoun has produced better since the coaches reportedly urged him to rely on his speed rush more often, but he still lacks secondary moves and the bulk to hold the edge against the run that he’ll need to be a three down player in the NFL. He’ll still be in high demand as he enters the draft as a speed rusher from the edge, but unless he shows that he’s more than a one trick pony, he may have a tough time showing that he’s anything more than a late first round draft pick.
Current Draft Projection: Late 1st round to early 2nd round. Down from late 1st round.
4. Malik McDowell, So, DT (not draft eligible until after the 2016 season): Malik McDowell flashed early with a tackle for a loss on Rutgers’ second drive, and then played like a man possessed in the 4th quarter. After multiple quarterback pressures, McDowell finally came through with the game clinching sack on Rutgers’ final drive of the game. McDowell looks more and more like he has the skill-set to project as a J.J. Watt type player at defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. Not to say that he would be as good as Watt, but game changers at defensive end in a 3-4 scheme are hard to come by, and McDowell has the size and athleticism to be a playmaker at that position in the NFL in addition to just playing tackle in a 4-3 defensive alignment, which should only enhance his draft value.
Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 3rd round. Up from 2nd to 4th round.
5. Jack Allen, Sr., C/G/T: Jack Allen once again moved from center to left tackle after Kodi Kieler struggled to protect Connor Cook’s blindside in the first quarter against Rutgers. It’s been a tough season for Allen, a pre-season All American at center, but not because of how he’s played. Injuries have decimated the Spartans’ offensive line, and Allen’s versatility has been the glue that has kept it together. His play upon filling in at left tackle should only go to show how athletic and versatile he is to NFL scouts. Unfortunately, Allen suffered his own injury very late in the Rutgers game, and like the case with Jack Conklin, a strong showing against Michigan while playing injured could be the shining point of his season.
Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Up from 3rd to 4th round.
6. Aaron Burbridge, Sr., WR: Aaron Burbridge re-established himself against Rutgers as Connor Cook’s go to receiver after several disappointing weeks where he failed to excel against the extra attention that he was receiving from opposing defenses. Burbridge’s body language seemed much better this week, even after his two drops. Burbridge not only recovered to go up strong and catch the ball on multiple occasions, but he ran well after the catch and added to his resume with several key runs coming off of handoffs. It should be noted that Burbridge primarily saw single coverage from Rutgers, who employed a pressure defense with plenty of blitzing from their front seven, so he still needs to prove himself when he’s doubled up.
Current Draft Projection: 3rd to 6th round. Up from 4th to 6th round.
7. Demetrious Cox, Jr., CB/S: Demetrious Cox has all the athleticism in the world needed to play in the NFL, he just needs to find a forever home in terms of a position. While he was possibly MSU’s top cornerback before moving back to safety following R.J. Williamson’s injury, his skill set will probably make him a free safety in the NFL, although more and more teams are favoring big corners these days. Either way, one more year of refining his coverage and tackling skills should substantially benefit Cox’s draft stock.
Current Draft Projection: 5th to 6th round. Status unchanged.
8. Lawrence Thomas, Sr., DE/DT: Lawrence Thomas is yet to break out at defensive end for the Spartans, although he did record a couple of hurries and a sack against Rutgers. Thomas is strong and athletic enough to play in the NFL, but is looking more and more like a base DE, which are pretty easy to come by unless you have a distinguishing skill to set you apart from the crowd. Thomas will need to continue to show off the pass rushing skills that he demonstrated against Rutgers if he wants to elevate himself to day two of the NFL Draft, especially as Michigan State plays better competition going forward.
Current Draft Projection: 5th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
9. Josiah Price, Jr., TE: Josiah Price was held out yet again for the Rutgers game due to injury, but reportedly could have played had it been necessary. Price has already shown that he is an elite red zone target, but can enhance his draft value by showing that he is a complete player in terms of catching the ball in the open field and becoming a more adept blocker.
Current Draft Projection: 5th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
10. Joel Heath, Sr., DT: Joel Heath has been solid for the Spartans this year, but struggled against Rutgers when he wasn’t paired with game changer Malik McDowell at defensive tackle. On two different occasions Heath and Damon Knox were pushed apart, creating a huge gap for the Scarlet Knights to run through. Heath will need to demonstrate that he can hold his own against bigger competition if he hopes to make it to the NFL.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Unchanged.
11. Riley Bullough, Jr., MLB: Riley Bullough was quiet against Rutgers, too quiet. He failed to shed blocks in order to make some necessary tackles, appeared to pass off coverage on a receiver coming out of the backfield that only he could have effectively covered, and he failed to fill the correct gap on too many occasions. Bullough has plenty of potential at middle linebacker given his athleticism, but is still a work in progress.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
Next up on the draft board:
Demetrius Cooper, So., DE: Demetrius Cooper looks like he could develop into an elite level pass rusher by the time he leaves MSU. Cooper made a key play that kept Rutgers out of the end zone when fought through a blocker to get a hand on and trip up a Rutgers ball carrier near the goal line at the end of the first half.
L.J. Scott, Fr., RB: Thrust into duty despite an injury, L.J. Scott took over the Michigan State running game in the second half against Rutgers. He has the size, power and shiftiness to excel at the next level, but needs to improve his pass protection and show that he can play on special teams to make himself standout when it eventually comes his time to try and make an NFL roster. Fortunately for Spartan fans, we have at least two more years to watch Scott develop.
Darien Harris, Sr., OLB: Darien Harris is back to making plays for the MSU defense. He runs a little too upright and flat-footed to make the quick cuts I’d like to see from an NFL outside linebacker, but Harris is a good college player, and I hope he proves me wrong and makes an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent.