1. Jack Conklin, Jr., LT: Jack Conklin continues to impress me with just how solid his play is. He may not be the most physically dominant left tackle (although I did count four or five pancake blocks against Nebraska), but he always seems to win his one on one match-ups thanks to great balance and footwork. Throw in the position rotation, trap blocking, and even the occasional pulls that he’s asked to make in Michigan State’s complex blocking scheme, and he’s a rare walk-on who will hear his name called in the 1st round of the NFL Draft.
Current Draft Projection: Early to mid 1st round. Status unchanged.
2. Connor Cook, Sr., QB: The Nebraska game was a good summary of who Connor Cook is as a draft prospect. He had an erratic first half where he missed several wide open targets, then looked amazing in the second half, when he found several small windows to thread throws in to well-covered receivers.
I hate to say this, but Cook almost reminds me of, dare I say…Tom Brady. Now, before people get upset at me for comparing Cook to a U of M quarterback, or before U of M fans become irate at me for suggesting that Cook might be as good in the NFL as Brady is (thanks to the Pats scheme), hear me out. Both Cook and Brady both struggle when they are forced to move back in the pocket or throw while scrambling. While they both have different styles, they are also both at their best when they can step up in the pocket, and in turn, step into their throws.
One of five Spartans to receive an invite to the Senior Bowl, I expect Cook to show very well, especially in regards to his interviews with NFL Scouts and staffs.
Current Draft Projection: Early to mid 1st round. Status unchanged.
3. Shilique Calhoun, Sr., DE: Let’s face it, Shilique Calhoun is a one trick pony, and although his one trick, the speed rush, is good, he’s a liability in the run game. While he’ll make a great situational pass rusher in the NFL, his ability to be a three down player in the is highly in question. Yes, he has been the victim of some uncalled holds, but he needs to be able to force off defenders with his strength so they aren’t in a position to ever get their hands around him. Having received an invite to the Senior Bowl, Calhoun’s one-on-one drills against opposing tackles will go a long way in determining whether he’s a 1st or 2nd round pick.
Current Draft Projection: Late 1st round or 2nd round. Down from mid to late 1st round.
4. Malik McDowell, So, DT (not draft eligible until after the 2016 season): Malik McDowell’s production has been down as of late, but that’s mainly because he’s been seeing constant double teams from opposing offenses. McDowell is a force, and those double teams are an honor that he will have to get used to going forward in his career. Perhaps a move to the 3-technique next season could help his production going forward, assuming that the larger Craig Evans is prepared to take over at nose tackle.
Current Draft Projection: 1st or 2nd round. Status unchanged.
5. Jack Allen, Sr., C/G/T: Like Jack Conklin, Jack Allen once again seemed to win all of his match-ups against Nebraska. For everyone’s sake, I’d like to see MSU get less cute with their blocking schemes and let All-Americans like Allen and Conklin simply grind things out one-on-one instead of sending them on a series of complicated slides, pulls and traps. In any event, Allen excels at doing what is asked of him, which does tend to show off his athleticism. Allen should show well to NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl now that he has earned an invitation.
Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Status unchanged.
6. Aaron Burbridge, Sr., WR: Aaron Burbridge has been both Connor Cook’s favorite target and the Big Ten’s best receiver all season, but he finally showed me the second gear in terms of speed that I was looking for from a scouting perspective against Nebraska. That top end speed was best demonstrated by the yards after the catch he produced after catching two different slant routes. The first of which he blew past the Nebraska secondary for a touchdown, and the second of which he made a nice grab in coverage and turned it into a 30-yard gain. In addition to the elite hands and the ball skills that he has on 50/50 throws, I finally saw the burst from Burbridge that I look for in a top notch receivers. My final question before assigning Burbridge a top draft grade is his route running, which is something that is tough to evaluate from the television angles you get on national broadcasts, but I’d still like to see him get more separation at times. Having been invited to the Senior Bowl, Burbridge’s performance in Mobile could mean the difference between being a 2nd round or a 4th round pick.
Current Draft Projection: Late 2nd to 4th round. Up from 3rd to 5th round.
7. Demetrious Cox, Jr., CB/S: Demetrious Cox had a mixed game against Nebraska. He was beat deep twice before intercepting a key pass in the second quarter. He also had a great one-on-one tackle on a screen pass in the red-zone in the second half, but later got trucked by Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr. at the 1-yard line on a key 3rd down play that went for a touchdown. You’ve got to give credit to Cox for moving back and forth between corner and safety from game to game, and even within games, but he’d surely benefit from a pro prospect standpoint from the stability of staying put and mastering one position going forward.
Current Draft Projection: 5th to 6th round. Status unchanged.
8. Joel Heath, Sr., DT: Joel Heath drew a holding penalty by Nebraska on a nice bull rush in the second quarter. He then left the game with a leg injury that was caused by a blatant Nebraska cheap shot that the referees missed. Michigan State sorely missed Heath’s ability to defend against the run as well as rush the passer in the second half, as he’s been one of the Spartan’s best all-around performers on their defensive line all season.
Current Draft Projection: 5th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
9. Lawrence Thomas, Sr., DE/DT: Lawrence Thomas was pretty much invisible against Nebraska. To be perfectly honest, Thomas’ pass rushing skills have been disappointing, and he hasn’t been as dominant in run support as I would have expected either. Thomas’ primary asset heading into the NFL is his versatility, but in order to become a high draft pick, you need to show above average skills in at least one area, which he is yet to do. Fortunately for Thomas, he should have a few more opportunities against big time opponents, as well as a Senior Bowl invite to show NFL scouts what he has before the draft.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Down from 5th to 6th round.
10. Riley Bullough, Jr., MLB: I thought Riley Bullough played one of his better games against Nebraska. Even without his goal line interception, which was pretty much handed to him by Tommy Armstrong, Jr., he seemed to fill all the right gaps and make tackles when he needed to. To become an elite prospect at middle linebacker in the NFL, I’d love to see Bullough come back to MSU next season 15 pounds heavier without any loss of his current speed or quickness, which is something that I think strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie can certainly help him with.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
11. Josiah Price, Jr., TE: Josiah Price wasn’t a huge factor against Nebraska, but he did make several catches against Nebraska’s zone defense outside of the red-zone. Price was also was more effective as a blocker than he had been in recent games since coming back after missing time due to an ankle injury, best highlighted by his two key blocks on Macgarrett King’s spectacular cut-back touchdown reception.
Current Draft Projection: 7th round. Status unchanged.
Next up on the draft board:
Demetrius Cooper, So., DE: Demetrius Cooper brought the pressure that forced Tommy Armstrong, Jr. to the throw the ball up for grabs, leading to a Demetrious Cox interception. Cooper remains the Spartans’ top pass rush prospect heading into next season.
L.J. Scott, Fr., RB: L.J. Scott unexpectedly received very few carries against Nebraska, giving way to Gerald Holmes, who started in his place. Scott is still MSU’s most talented running back, but if I had to speculate, I’d guess that Holmes saw the majority of work due to his abilities in pass protection, which is an area where most true freshman, like Scott, can struggle.
Darien Harris, Sr., OLB: Darien Harris was a monster against Nebraska, with several huge (and clean) hits and three big tackles for losses. I’ve questioned Harris’ lateral speed at times, but last Saturday he was blowing up screens in addition to making key goal line stops. I still don’t think he’s fast enough to play outside linebacker, or big enough to play middle linebacker in the NFL, but with a few more performances like this, Harris could get a shot as a developmental player who could contribute on special teams. Inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme might be the best fit for Harris in the NFL.