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Michigan State Spartans Football: Evaluating Michigan State's Top Draft Prospects

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Ranking Michigan State's top NFL Draft prospects

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

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. After the season progresses, I’ll also look at some of MSU’s top underclassmen based upon how they’ve been playing.

1. Jack Conklin, Jr., LT: Despite some disarray on the right side of the offensive line, Jack Conklin has been an anchor on the left side. It’s not instinctual to watch a left tackle play when watching football on TV, but what the Spartans are having Conklin do in terms of trap and run blocking is nothing short of amazing. As valuable as left tackles are, I would not be surprised to see Conklin go very early in the NFL Draft should he declare after his junior season, as many expect him to do.

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

2. Connor Cook, Sr., QB: It’s astounding how much criticism I’ve heard Connor Cook get from fellow Spartan fans. Not only is Cook on the verge of going down as MSU’s most successful signal caller ever, but he’s likely to become the first Spartans’ quarterback to get drafted in the 1st Round of the NFL Draft since Earl Morrall in 1956. Sure, Cook makes some inaccurate throws, but with a stellar 55 to 16 touchdown to interception ratio, he also protects the ball very well. Better yet, in a day and age when more and more college teams are running spread offenses that don’t translate to the NFL, Cook is playing in a pro style system where he has demonstrated the ability to read defenses, as well as the arm strength to make bread and butter NFL throws, like the 20-yard out.

Current Draft Projection: 1st round. Status unchanged.

3. Shilique Calhoun, Sr., DE: Playing Air Force is a tough gig for a pass rush specialist like Shilique Calhoun. Not only did he have to fight off their offensive line’s notorious chop blocks, but the Falcons only threw the ball ten times all game, giving him little opportunity to show his skills in getting to the passer. Fortunately, for every team that runs the triple option like Air Force, Calhoun will get an opportunity to play a team like Penn State and quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who can manage to find any pass rusher within five yards and run straight into him. Still, it would have been nice to see Calhoun come up bigger against the run.

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

4. Aaron Burbridge, Sr., WR: It’s nice to see Aaron Burbridge living up to the hype that he arrived at Michigan State with. Better yet, with eight receptions for 156 yards and three touchdowns, including a highlight reel toe tapper in the end zone, Burbridge is finally garnering some national attention. I’ve seen about all I need to from Burbridge to project him as an early second day pick, but he may need a few more big performances against high profile opponents like Ohio State and Michigan to up his draft stock and perception nationally after three underwhelming years to start his career off at MSU.

Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Up from 4th to 6th round.

5. Malik McDowell, So, DT (not draft eligible until after the 2016 season): As an underclassman, McDowell is not eligible to enter the NFL until 2016, but that has not stopped him from flashing as perhaps the Spartans’ top player on defense in 2015. McDowell had an impressive six tackles from his defensive tackle position against Air Force, and also recorded Michigan State’s sole quarterback hurry. Defensive tackles who are strong enough to stuff the run and athletic enough to rush the passer are tough to find, and with a little fine tuning McDowell could make himself into a 1st or 2nd round pick after next season.

Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Up from 3rd to 5th round

6. Jack Allen, Sr., C/G: Jack Allen didn’t stand out against Air Force like he did against Oregon, but he was solid in pass protection as usual. Allen got some surge on Connor Cook's quarterback sneak on 4thdown in the 4th quarter, but it wasn't quite enough to help Cook get a first down. Nonetheless, Allen is a physical and intelligent center, which are traits that plenty of NFL teams look for in their snapper.

Current Draft Projection: 3rd to 4th round. Status unchanged.

7. Lawrence Thomas, Sr., DE/DT: Like all of MSU’s defensive linemen, Air Force proved to be a tough match-up for Lawrence Thomas, at least when it came to padding his stats. L.T. did make a key third down stop in the second quarter and finished with five tackles, including getting credit for a half of a tackle for a loss on a huge hit in the 3rd quarter. Both Thomas and Joel Heath contributed on a key goal line stand in the 4th quarter.  Thomas definitely has NFL talent, but is looking more and more like a reserve or role player.

Current Draft Projection: 4th to 6th round. Status unchanged.

8. Demetrious Cox, Jr., CB/S:  Demetrius Cox had a quiet game against Air Force, as the Falcons only attempted nine passes all game. Cox will have more pressure going forward, as he’ll be the Spartans’ new number one corner after Vayonte Copeland was lost for the season due to a neck injury.

Current Draft Projection: 4th to 6th round. Status unchanged.

9. Josiah Price, Jr., TE: With all the recent talk about how they put quarterbacks into the NFL, Michigan State is doing just as good of a job in developing pro caliber tight ends. Josiah Price is not only the next Spartan tight end in line to get a shot at the NFL, but his hands and receiving skills will make him a highly sought after commodity, as teams are always looking for hybrid players who can exploit opposing defenses through mismatches in the red zone. Price could further elevate his draft status by bulking up and coming back for his senior season to show more of an all-around game as a blocker, but his 15-yard touchdown against Air Force on a seam route only highlighted what he already brings to the table as a pass catcher.

Current Draft Projection: 4th to 6th round. Status unchanged.

10. Joel Heath, Sr., DT: Like it was for Shilique Calhoun, Air Force proved to be a tough match-up for defensive tackle Joel Heath. Heath was guilty of a neutral zone infraction, which is a big no-no against a run happy team like Air Force. He did record five total tackles, including one for a loss, in a day when MSU used a heavy rotation of their defensive linemen.

Both Heath and Lawrence Thomas contributed in a key goal line stand in the 4th quarter

Current Draft Projection: 4th to 6th round. Status unchanged.

11. Riley Bullough, Jr., MLB: Riley Bullough had 16 total tackles against Air Force, but that was to be expected in a game where MSU's linebackers had little responsibility in pass coverage and could instead focus on the run. While Bullough has been an improvement over Taiwan Jones from last season at middle linebacker, especially in regards to his reads, I would like to see him upgrade his open field tackling, which is an area in which the entire Spartan defense could improve. Why Bullough was even in an out of reach game with under three minutes left when he received a questionable "targeting" penalty is beyond me.

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

Next up on the draft board: Demetrius Cooper, Montae Nicholson.

Falling out of consideration: Darien Harris