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NFL Draft Watch 2019: Potential Michigan State Spartans draftees

Recently updated with NFL Combine invitees.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-2019 NFL season has officially ended, which means all eyes are on the upcoming Draft in April. The Michigan State Spartans own the third-longest draft streak in all of college football by having at least one player selected to the pros in each of the last 78 years.

The 2019 Spartans crop is a lot stronger than the 2018 group, which saw just one player get drafted (Brian Allen). This year, Michigan State should have — at a minimum — three players drafted, with the possibility of having more selected. This year’s NFL Draft is in Nashville (yours truly will be in attendance) on April 25 through April 27.

Let’s run through the list of potential draftees coming out of East Lansing:

Justin Layne, CB:

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Layne decided to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft, and also didn’t play in the Redbox Bowl on New Year’s Eve. I can’t really blame him because he should be drafted within the first four rounds. ESPN’s Mel Kiper, widely considered one of the top draft experts in the business, listed Layne as a top-10 cornerback prospect as early as November, and Layne only seems to be gaining momentum up NFL teams’ draft boards. He has the size and length that NFL general managers dream of at 6-feet-3-inches. He put together a very solid senior season without the help of his running mate, Josiah Scott, for the majority of the campaign. Layne finished with 72 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, one interception and a Big Ten-leading 15 pass defenses. He also played some wide receiver, which was the position he was originally recruited at. Layne is likely to be the first Spartan to hear his name, though it could very well be LJ Scott as well. Speaking of which...

(Update:) Combine Invite: Yes

LJ Scott, RB

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Scott had the opportunity to redshirt after only playing in four regular season games, but he decided to declare for the Draft. It’s somewhat difficult to gauge the pro potential of Scott. Following a tremendous freshman season where he helped lead the Spartans to a Big Ten title, injuries and inconsistent play stunted his growth as a college player. It was almost as if he hit his ceiling as a freshman. He failed to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a single season and only averaged 3.3 yards per attempt in 2018. He showed flashes of what he can do (Michigan game in 2016), but never did it consistently. However, Scott seems like he projects better as a pro than a college player. He has prototypical NFL size at 6-feet-1, 225 pounds, and the ability to run between the tackles. He could be a low risk, high reward player as a spell back for an NFL team and eventually become a starter. He also makes sense as a short yardage back. He was the first Spartan to announce he has been invited to the Combine, and now we know a few others will join him.

(Update:) Combine Invite: Yes

Matt Sokol, TE

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to Scott, I think Sokol projects better as a professional player. He was inconsistent at MSU, but on the same side of the coin, the game plan and play-calling just seemed to make the tight end obsolete in 2018. It also didn’t help that the entire offense was abysmal and the quarterback play was poor all season long. Sokol had just eight catches for 100 yards and a touchdown as a senior, which was a major regression from a promising junior campaign where he snagged 21 receptions. He finished his career at MSU with just 31 catches for 348 yards and two touchdowns. He has had some inconsistent hands and route running, but he is a good in-line blocker, and has pretty solid speed and acceleration off of the line for a man of his size. He was not invited to the Combine, so he will need to have an impressive pro day at Michigan State. Last year, 15 tight ends were selected. I can see a team taking a chance on Sokol in the sixth or seventh round. If not, he will surely be signed as a priority undrafted free agent.

(Update:) Combine Invite: No

Khari Willis, SS

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Captain Khari Willis is just a player who has always done it the right way, and one I truly hope gets a shot in the NFL. He was invited to the Combine and hopefully is able to use that and the Michigan State pro day to elevate his stock. Right now, Willis is likely to be a mid-round pick, potentially being selected anywhere from the fourth round on. But a team shouldn’t hesitate to take a swing on him if he’s still available in the sixth or seventh rounds. He has good size, is a sure tackler and can make the big hit. He has some work to do in pass coverage, but he can develop those skills. I see Willis latching onto a team as a special teams ace (as does he), and hopefully earning some defensive playing time later in his career. He is the kind of player NFL teams will be attracted to because of his leadership qualities, competitiveness and great attitude.

(Update:) Combine Invite: Yes

Andrew Dowell, OLB

NCAA Football: Purdue at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Dowell is somewhat undersized for an NFL linebacker at 225 pounds, but there are players who weigh less than that making great livings in the NFL as outside linebackers (as a huge Jacksonville Jaguars fan, Telvin Smith immediately comes to mind). Dowell could be a candidate to switch positions and move into the defensive backfield, but I am not sure he has all the tools — He has decent speed, but I am not sure he has the top end speed or coverage skills to make that transition at the next level. One other area that may fit well for Dowell is the “rover” position that is a hybrid safety/linebacker. Mark Barron of the Los Angeles Rams has played that position well throughout his career, but you don’t see a lot of schemes employing a rover. Dowell did not receive an invite to the NFL Combine, so he will need to have a strong pro day. I don’t see him getting drafted, though. I do think he will sign on to a team as an undrafted free agent, and get a chance to earn a roster spot.

(Update:) Combine Invite: No

Felton Davis III, WR

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

This one is tough. Davis was a surefire Combine invitee and draft pick (and entered the season as the No. 11 WR draft prospect), but a torn Achilles may have very well put a damper on his NFL future. He was still invited to the Combine, and although he most likely won’t be healed in time to physically test there, he can be measured, participate in mental tests (such as the Wonderlic) and interviewed by NFL teams. If his medicals check out closer to the Draft, though, teams may be interested in his red zone ability and long frame at 6-feet-4-inches tall. He has a long reach and has made many contested catches for the Spartans. Davis also has very good change-of-direction skills and can make defenders miss. However, he’s thin, isn’t the most tactical route runner and doesn’t possess top-end speed (though, I think he’s faster — at least pre-injury — than given credit for). He’s also been inconsistent with his hands. All of that can be fixed, though, with good coaching and weight/speed training. It’s really the injury that is going to hold him back. We’ll be paying close attention to see what happens with Davis.

(Update:) Combine Invite: Yes

Other names to watch out for, but who are highly unlikely to get drafted, include guard David Beedle, fullback Collin Lucas, linebackers Jon Reschke and Byron Bullough, and safeties Matt Morrissey and Grayson Miller. A couple of these players may get a shot as an undrafted free agent.

The 2020 class is an even more impressive hall for the Spartans with Kenny Willekes, Joe Bachie, Raequan Williams, Mike Panasiuk and others all expected to be drafted. But one thing is for sure in 2019 — the streak will be extending to 79 straight years.

Players begin to report for the NFL Combine on Tuesday, Feb. 26 and festivities run through Monday, March 4.