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

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A Week 4 update

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 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: As of the time that I submitted this post to be published, no definitive word had been released by the Michigan State coaching staff detailing the extent of the knee injury that Jack Conklin suffered against Central Michigan. Is it bad enough that it could require surgery, end his season, or negatively affect his NFL Draft stock? If so, might he consider coming back to MSU for his senior year? Obviously, Conklin’s availability is vital to Michigan State’s season and their chances to make the College Football Playoffs. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope for a good outcome.

Current Draft Projection: Early 1st round. Status unchanged (if his knee injury is not serious).

2. Connor Cook, Sr., QB: Connor Cook wasn’t asked to pass much against Central Michigan, and when he did, he had mixed results. My biggest criticism of Cook was on MSU’s first pass play of the game. Even though he managed to hit a wide open Macgarrett Kings on a deep post pattern, Kings had to dive for the ball when he could have easily taken it to the house had he been able to stay on his feet. While I initially blamed Cook for overthrowing a wide open receiver (a big no-no), the Big Ten Network sideline reporter later noted how Cook came to the bench (after Michigan State ultimately scored a touchdown on that drive) and slammed his helmet before laying into Kings for slowing up on his route. After re-watching the play, Kings did seem to hesitate after beating his man, almost as if he was trying to get Cook’s attention before realizing that the ball was already in the air. That was just enough to keep Cook from hitting Kings perfectly in stride, and change my initial perception of the play.

Current Draft Projection: 1st round. Status unchanged.

3. Shilique Calhoun, Sr., DE: For anybody that was doubting Shilique Calhoun’s status as a potential 1st round draft pick heading into this weekend, the Central Michigan game should have been a real eye opener as to his abilities. Don’t get me wrong, there have been stretches where Calhoun has not lived up to the hype of his jaw dropping start to the 2013 season when he recorded 3 defensive touchdowns in the Michigan State’s first two games, but he once again flashed his potential as a game changer against CMU. NFL teams love pass rushers with potential, let alone ones who can draw two holding penalties and put up 2.5 sacks, a pass deflection, 6 total tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, and a blocked field goal in a single game, especially when it’s against a Lombardi Award watch list nominee like CMU offensive lineman Ramadan Ahmeti. If Calhoun can continue to put up a sack per game through the meat of the B1G season, he should be able to secure his position as a sure fire 1st round NFL Draft pick.

Current Draft Projection: Mid to late 1st round. Up from late 1st round.

4. Malik McDowell, So, DT (not draft eligible until after the 2016 season): Malik McDowell was quiet against Central Michigan, although the Spartans did seem to substitute rather liberally at defensive tackle throughout the game. Despite a lack of tackles, when McDowell was in the game he made his presence felt by plowing blockers into the backfield. Right now McDowell would be an early round NFL pick based upon his potential alone. Fortunately for Michigan State fans, we’ll have him around for at least one more season before he becomes draft eligible, and he should pair up with rising underclassman Craig Evans to form one of the best defensive tackle duos in the nation in 2016.

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

5. Aaron Burbridge, Sr., WR: After a hot start to the 2015 season, Aaron Burbridge drew plenty of attention from Central Michigan, and he did not respond the way I would have liked. While Burbridge went up strong for a nice grab in coverage in the 4th quarter, I questioned his effort in short arming a potential reception in the 2nd quarter when he could have at least dove for the ball. Worse yet, Burbridge followed that poor effort up on the very next play by making a short catch and immediately fumbling the ball, which was almost recovered by the Chippewas before it went out of bounds. With his fellow receivers failing to distinguish themselves, Burbridge is going to have to get used to drawing double coverage going forward, and his NFL Draft stock will almost certainly depend on how he fares from here on out.

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

6. Jack Allen, Sr., C/G: Jack Allen was Michigan State’s best run blocker against Central Michigan, especially after Jack Conklin was lost for the game in the first half due to injury. After Conklin left the game, Allen kept his troops together and made two nice blocks while pulling and later cracking back on Gerald Holmes’ touchdown runs in the 4th quarter. He also had a nice pancake block late in the game that he seemed to exert very little effort on. While I’d love to see a little more bulk on Allen to help him anchor better against the rush and get more movement on running plays, he should be a starting caliber NFL center given his intelligence and mean streak alone.

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

7. Demetrious Cox, Jr., CB/S:  Demetrius Cox showed his versatility by switching back and forth between corner and safety during the Central Michigan game, which should be his ticket to the NFL. With Montae Nicholson struggling at safety this season, it will be interesting to see where Cox ends up position wise. His primary position in the NFL should be free safety, although there are several NFL teams that might find value in him as a big corner. In either event, while Cox rarely loses his man in coverage, I’d sure like to see him make more plays on the football. Fortunately, he has another season and a half of eligibility to put it all together.

Current Draft Projection: 5th to 6th round. Down from 4th to 6th round.

8. Lawrence Thomas, Sr., DE/DT: I’m beginning to become a bit concerned by Lawrence Thomas’ lack of production. Sure, he can hold the edge at defensive end, but so can a lot of guys in the NFL. Thomas desperately needs to show that his size and speed translate into an ability to make big time plays, and to date, he’s been lacking in that department. Look for rising star Demetrius Cooper to get more and more looks at Thomas’ defensive end spot in obvious passing situations in the event that "L.T." doesn’t step up his game.

Current Draft Projection: 5th to 7th round. Down from 4th to 6th round.

9. Josiah Price, Jr., TE: Josiah Price’s production suggests that he is no longer Connor Cook’s "security blanket," and is now just a favorite red zone target. While I would love to see Price add some bulk and become a more complete player at the tight end position, that’s something that won’t happen until the offseason. As for now, Price should have the ability to get open in situations that don’t just involve the red zone, and that’s something that he, Cook, and Michigan State’s coaching staff all need to work on going forward.

Current Draft Projection: 5th to 7th round. Down from 4th to 6th round.

10. Joel Heath, Sr., DT: Joel Heath has been an unsung hero of Michigan State’s defense this season, but was held out against Central Michigan with what was believed to be a minor injury (he was reportedly available for emergency duty). Heath has been equally good against the run and the pass from his defensive tackle position, and could be one of MSU’s pleasant surprises next spring when it comes to the NFL Draft. A deep defensive line rotation should also allow the Spartan coaching staff to utilize Heath according to his strengths, which will only make him look better on film.

Current Draft Projection: 5th to 7th round. Down from 4th to 6th round.

11. Riley Bullough, Jr., MLB: Riley Bullough provided a spark to a lackluster Michigan State defense when he returned from a targeting suspension in the second half of the Central Michigan game. Bullough was not only solid in coverage, but he seemed to be involved in or around nearly every second half tackle. MSU will need more of this play from Bullough going forward, who is gaining valuable experience as a defensive signal caller. He projects as a mobile middle or even as weak side linebacker in the NFL, especially if he can bulk up a little bit more without losing any of his speed and athleticism.

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

Next up on the draft board: Demetrius Cooper, Darien Harris.

Falling out of consideration: Montae Nicholson