1. Connor Cook, Sr., QB: Connor Cook’s injured throwing shoulder looked much stronger against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, but he and his offense still struggled in what turned out to be a 38-0 shutout loss. While his offensive line gave Cook adequate protection in the passing game against a strong Crimson Tide defensive line, they were not able to take any pressure off of him by opening up lanes in the running game. While Cook threw a bad interception after staring down Aaron Burbridge on a rushed pass at the very end of the first half (it looked as if they got their signals crossed while trying to run an ill advised hurry up play), he was ultimately doomed by his receivers’ inability to get open against tight press coverage from Alabama, which left him trying to force the ball into very small or even non-existent windows.
Current Draft Projection: Mid to late 1st round. Down from early to mid 1st round.
2. Jack Conklin, Jr., LT: Jack Conklin held his own in pass protection against Alabama’s vaunted defensive line, but still failed to make an impression in the run game. Michigan State’s run blocking scheme is far more complicated than lining up against your man and going head to head, as the Spartans instead prefer to trap, pull and even move their tackles inside at times. Accordingly, I will be very interested to see how Conklin performs in one-on-one drills in any post season bowl game workouts that he may attend. He still remains my #3 left tackle now that he has officially declared for the NFL Draft.
Current Draft Projection: Mid 1st round. Status unchanged.
3. Shilique Calhoun, Sr., DE: As he has frequently demonstrated over the course of the past two seasons, Shilique Calhoun had an all or nothing performance against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Unfortunately for Spartan fans, he was a "nothing" against the Crimson Tide, as he frequently became engulfed in the running game by opposing blockers and put very little pressure on the opposing quarterback. Calhoun projects as a situational pass rusher in the NFL, although I could possibly see him transitioning to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme to make better use of his speed and quickness. While he may not be the every down play-maker that Spartan fans once envisioned, his pass rush skills will still be in high demand when it comes to the NFL, even if it's not in the first round.
Current Draft Projection: Late 1st to mid 2nd round. Down from late 1st to early 2nd round.
4. Malik McDowell, So, DT (not draft eligible until after the 2016 season): Malik McDowell was a force inside against Alabama. Matched up against All-American center Ryan Kelly, McDowell was in the Crimson Tide backfield throughout the game. While I’m not saying that McDowell got the best of Kelly, but he certainly gave him all he could handle. I’ve been somewhat puzzled by Michigan State’s failure to use McDowell in short yardage sets, as he seems to sit out more often than he should in key situations such as he did Derrick Henry’s first touchdown run from inside the 1-yard line. McDowell has an extremely bright future going forward, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play some base defensive end next season given his athleticism, MSU’s depth at defensive tackle, and their relative inexperience coming back along the edges.
Current Draft Projection: 1st or 2nd round. Status unchanged.
5. Jack Allen, Sr., C/G/T: Jack Allen faced perhaps the toughest match-up of his career going against Alabama defensive tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, both of whom could be first round NFL draft picks. Allen struggled for the first time all season in pass protection, giving up a sack to Crimson Tide rusher Jonathan Allen. As an undersized center, Allen lacked the support he needed from his flanking guards to make the impact in the running game, but he certainly didn’t get beat too badly either. Allen is an NFL caliber center who projects best on a team that employs a zone blocking scheme.
Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Status unchanged.
6. Aaron Burbridge, Sr., WR: Aaron Burbridge was essentially shut down by a heavy dose of press coverage from Alabama's defensive backs. Burbridge has the hands, quickness and ball skills to make it into the NFL, but his inability to run clean routes for the entire route tree and get open against top notch defenders makes me question his ability to become a #1 caliber receiver on an NFL team.
Current Draft Projection: 3rd to 4th round. Down from 2nd to 4th round.
7. Riley Bullough, Jr., MLB: Riley Bullough keeps getting better and better at middle linebacker, which was not his natural position coming to MSU. Bullough not only continued to make the right calls at the line of scrimmage and plug the right gaps against Alabama, but he was a force from sideline to sideline in taking down Crimson Tide ball carriers and receivers. In fact, Bullough was one of the MSU players who helped make Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry a non-factor in the game. After his junior season, Bullough is nearly as good as his big brother Max was in diagnosing plays, and is already much more athletic in his pursuit skills, making him a potential three down player in the NFL, and even more valuable as the leader of what should be an elite Spartan defense heading into his senior season.
Current Draft Projection: 4th or 5th round. Up from 5th to 7th round.
8. Demetrious Cox, Jr., CB/S: Fair or not in terms of the match-up, Demetrious Cox got abused by Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley in the Cotton Bowl on two deep pass plays. Cox, who has been one of MSU’s better players in coverage this year after being forced to move by necessity from safety to corner, and then back to safety, simply did not have the foot speed to run with Ridley. In my opinion it was MSU's lack of foot speed, both in the secondary and at receiver, that affected the outcome of the game. Cox's speed will be a concern moving forward, but asking him to cover one of the nation’s fastest receivers one-on-one was a little bit too much for him to handle. On the plus side, despite playing read and react and not necessarily even lining up as an extra man in the box, Cox was a big factor in helping MSU shut down Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in the run game.
Current Draft Projection: 6h or 7th round. Down from 5th or 6th round.
9. Lawrence Thomas, Sr., DE/DT: Lawrence Thomas played one of his better games against Alabama. While he’s never going to be an elite pass rusher from the defensive end position, he was a force in setting the edge against Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, and showed great athleticism and pursuit downfield all game long. I look for an NFL team to take a chance on Thomas and moving him to either defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Up from 7th round.
10. Joel Heath, Sr., DT: Joel Heath and the Michigan State defensive line certainly held their own against Alabama’s highly hyped offensive front, but at the same time, Heath did little to stand out in the game on his own. While not dominant in any aspect of his game, Heath is a versatile defensive tackle who could find his way onto an NFL roster as a developmental player.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
11. Josiah Price, Jr., TE: In a game where Michigan State could have used their tight ends to help negate Alabama’s advantage at defensive line against the run and take some attention away from WR Aaron Burbridge, Josiah Price did little to help Connor Cook and his offense out. Price needs to work on his strength at the line of scrimmage, as well as his speed and route running heading into his senior season in order to make himself into a top notch NFL prospect at the tight end position.
Current Draft Projection: 7th round. Down from 6th or 7th round.
Next up on the draft board:
Arjen Colquhoun, Sr., CB: Arjen Colquhoun is Michigan State’s most improved member of the secondary, and was not really tested by Alabama. He did give up a big play to Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard in a size mismatch, but otherwise held his own in coverage. He should get invited to a NFL training camp based upon his late season film and speed alone, and may have a chance to make a team as a developmental practice squad player.
Darien Harris, Sr., OLB: While Darien Harris played well late in the season, he struggled against Alabama. Not only did his lack of lateral speed show up versus the Crimson Tide, but he had trouble shedding blocks in the open field. Harris projects as an undrafted free agent who could initially make an NFL team based upon special teams play or as a practice squad player.