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Michigan State Spartans Football: Who are Michigan State's top NFL Draft prospects?

Checking in on the NFL draft stock of current Spartans

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

1. Connor Cook, Sr., QB: Connor Cook may have been named MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game, but it was still an ugly victory for him. Early in the game he forced a throw that was intercepted by an Iowa defensive lineman rather than taking a sack, and then later, he took a sack that took MSU out of field goal range when he could have just thrown the ball away.

For the most part, Cook did a decent job of dissecting Iowa’s zone defense, but by the end of the game it was clear that his throwing shoulder was bothering him after a hard third quarter hit. Fortunately, Michigan State went on to victory thanks to a run heavy 22 play drive at the end of the game, although it’s questionable as to whether Cook would have been physically able to lead the Spartans to a win had he actually been required to throw down the field more on that drive.

As the Unitas Award winner it’s clear that Cook is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, but right now, the biggest question heading into the post season and the NFL Draft is the health of his right shoulder. Fortunately, he has three weeks to rest it.

Current Draft Projection: Early to mid 1st round. Status unchanged.

2. Jack Conklin, Jr., LT: While Jack Conklin’s blocking assignments recorded one, maybe even 1.5 sacks against Connor Cook against Iowa, Conklin didn’t necessarily lose his battle on either occasion. In the first instance, Conklin held his man off for 4.75 seconds before Cook went down in what was clearly a coverage sack. The next time that Conklin’s man was involved in bringing Cook down, he held him off for 5 seconds before Conklin clearly released and moved on to the next level. Unfortunately, his man recovered and converged on Cook at roughly the same time that Iowa’s safety came in on a delayed blitz. I don’t think Conklin’s man got credit for that sack, and even if he did, I don’t think it was necessarily on Conklin. To add injury to insult, Conklin was called for a holding call on Michigan State’s final drive, when it was clear he cleanly pancaked his blocker. This game didn’t look good on paper for Conklin, but his film looked much better.

Current Draft Projection: Mid 1st round. Status unchanged.

3. Shilique Calhoun, Sr., DE: Shilique Calhoun is never going to be an easy draft evaluation. In fact, he’s an enigma. He’s either non-existent in games, or as the case was against Iowa, completely dominant.

Against Iowa Calhoun had a sack that resulted in a fumble that could have very easily been recovered and returned for a MSU touchdown. He later had another huge sack that pinned Iowa inside their own 20-yard line early in the second half. Calhoun also had a nice hit on quarterback C.J. Beathard in the red zone that resulted in an incompletion in the 1st quarter, and his penetration into the backfield helped prevent what looked to be a half back pass in the 4th quarter.

Yes, Calhoun needs to be better against the run and more consistent, but he is also an elite talent as a speed rusher. If he can replicate his performance against Iowa in MSU’s bowl game(s) versus elite competition, he should work himself back into the mix to be a first round pick.

Current Draft Projection: Late 1st or early 2nd round. Up from 2nd round.

4. Malik McDowell, So, DT (not draft eligible until after the 2016 season): Malik McDowell was double teamed for much of the game against Iowa, but still managed to penetrate the backfield and get pressure. For instance, he exploded into the backfield and helped converge on the passer in what turned out to be Shilique Calhoun’s second sack of the game, and while he didn’t get credit for a half of a sack on the first play of Iowa’s final drive, he sure looked to be just as responsible as Demetrius Cooper in bringing Hawkeye quarterback C.J. Beathard down and forcing a fumble that helped drain what little time remained on the clock.

Current Draft Projection: 1st or 2nd round. Status unchanged.

5. Jack Allen, Sr., C/G/T: Jack Allen and the Spartan offensive line were at their best on MSU’s game winning, 9 minute 22 play drive in the 4th quarter. Not only is a drive like that impressive in any situation, but when the game is on the line and your star quarterback’s ability to throw the ball is in serious question due to injury, it shows just what a competitor you are. And while MSU’s entire offensive line deserves credit, many of L.J. Scott’s key runs came behind their senior leader, Jack Allen, who at times on that drive even lined up at H-back and was put in motion, which is just another feather in his cap when it comes to position versatility.

Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Status unchanged.

6. Aaron Burbridge, Sr., WR: Facing a stingy Iowa secondary, Aaron Burbridge did an excellent job of finding the seams against the Hawkeye’s zone defense, particularly between their press cornerback and the deep safety. Burbridge has shown the ability to get open against the zone, as well as the ball skills to win one-on-one match-ups in man coverage. Burbridge has certainly demonstrated the skills to make himself no less than a mid-round draft pick, and could further improve his draft status by performing well at the Senior Bowl and running a sub 4.5 forty yard dash at the Scouting Combine or his Pro Day.

Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Status unchanged.

7. Riley Bullough, Jr., MLB: Riley Bullough just continues to make big plays for the Spartans. He was not only in on the tackle (along with Darien Harris) that forced a fumble on Iowa’s very first drive, but he also lowered the boom on an Iowa receiver that jarred the ball loose and lead to Demetrious Cox’s late 2nd quarter "Matrix" like interception in the end zone in which the ball seemed to suspend in mid-air, or at least on Bullough’s back.

The more I watched that play on film, the more I loved what Bullough did. As the play was developing, he was directing a fellow defender to a weak spot in the defense, and then, while the ball was in the air, he made a split second decision to break and put a crushing hit on the Iowa receiver. If I were a scout for a NFL team, that play alone would make me want a guy like him on my team. It was the perfect combination of film study and football instinct.

With the ability to blitz, stuff the run, and drop into coverage, Bullough projects as a middle linebacker who can stay on the field all three downs, which is a sought after commodity in today’s NFL. He could stand to get stronger when it comes to shedding off blockers, but he has another year of eligibility to bulk up and develop into someone who could possibly be a star middle linebacker in the NFL.

Current Draft Projection: 4th or 5th round. Up from 5th to 7th round.

8. Demetrious Cox, Jr., CB/S: Despite a missed tackle early in the game, Demetrious Cox rebounded to be one of Michigan State’s key performers in their victory over Iowa. He made a huge one-on-one tackle to prevent an Iowa touchdown on a screen pass early in the game, and later came up with a crucial interception in the end zone for his third pick of the year in an incredibly instinctive play after the ball was jarred loose by Riley Bullough. Cox will appeal to some NFL teams like Seattle that prefer big cornerbacks, but will likely have the most value with teams looking for an athletic free safety who can also cover wide receivers and tight ends out of the slot.

Current Draft Projection: 5th or 6h round. Up from 6th round.

9. Lawrence Thomas, Sr., DE/DT: Lawrence Thomas’ play was underwhelming against Iowa. For a defensive end who isn’t much of a pass rush threat, he needs to show up more in terms of making plays, and not just holding the edge, in the running game. Thomas does own a Senior Bowl invite, and that is his best bet at this point to show that he has the skill set to play in the NFL, perhaps at another position like defensive tackle or defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.

Current Draft Projection: 7th round. Down from 6th to 7th round.

10. Joel Heath, Sr., DT: After losing reps while presumably recovering from injury, Joel Heath not only played more downs against Iowa, but he made several significant plays. Heath demonstrated his athleticism and football I.Q. by reading an early screen pass and making a nice open field tackle. He later demonstrated his strength by dropping his pads and getting low enough to make a stuff on a key third and short in the red zone. Heath may not be as athletic as Malik McDowell or as big as Craig Evans, but he’s an extremely versatile defensive tackle who could develop into a solid all around NFL player over time.

Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Status unchanged.

11. Josiah Price, Jr., TE: In what turned out to be a power game against Iowa, Josiah Price seemed to concede some plays to blocking tight end Paul Lang, but was also a key player in MSU’s final game winning drive. Price first went in motion and took a shovel pass for a key first down on 3rd and short, and later sealed the edge on a nice crack-back block after he was lined up wide on a reverse that R.J. Shelton ran for 10-yards. Both plays were instrumental in Michigan State’s comeback win, and by showing blocking skills in key moments, Price could be starting to elevate his draft stock.

Current Draft Projection: 6th or 7th round. Up from 7th round.

12. Darien Harris, Sr., OLB: Darien Harris combined with Riley Bullough to force a fumble on Iowa’s very first drive that helped set the tone for a rough and tumble defensive battle. Along with a strong game in coverage and in run support, Harris also put pressure on Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard with a blitz that forced an early incompletion, and he recorded a nice tackle for a loss in the 4th quarter. At this point Harris has put a solid year together on film, and will likely hope for invitations to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine, where he could cement his status as a late round draft pick by demonstrating speed and athleticism, as my primary complaint about his game has been that he appears to play a little bit too stiff at times.

Current Draft Projection: 7th round. Up from 7th round or undrafted free agent.

Next up on the draft board:

L.J. Scott, Fr., RB (not draft eligible until after the 2017 season): While he continued to split carries with Gerald Holmes and Madre London, it was L.J. Scott who got the call with the game was on the line in the second half against Iowa. Better yet, with his "Go-Go Gadget" arm extension as he "reached higher" for the end zone, Scott not only became an instant MSU legend, but he found his leg churning second effort being discussed on pretty much every sports highlight show in America. Needless to say, with two plus years left to play at Michigan State, Scott could really make a name for himself if the Spartans continue to play high caliber football. Save for some seasoning in pass protection and tightening up of his ball security, Scott should be the next elite tailback that Michigan State sends to the NFL.

Arjen Colquhoun, Sr., CB: Arjen Colquhoun passed yet another test with a strong game against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game. I would never have expected him to be in the mix for a shot at the NFL after his start to the season, but lately he’s been a lock down corner who keeps coming up with big time pass breakups in key situations. Colquhoun’s fumble recovery on Iowa’s first drive set the tone for the game. He then broke up what could have been a touchdown pass to Iowa receiver Tevauan Smith in the end zone. His late season game film and speed should at least give him a shot to earn an invite to a NFL training camp, and could possibly even make Colquhoun worthy of a 7th round flier pick late in the draft given the recent success of MSU cornerbacks.