No Michigan State football players were selected in the NFL Draft this past weekend, ending an impressive 80-year run. The sharp drop-off in recruiting toward the end of the 2010s has been noticeable on the field the last two seasons and became even more visible during recent drafts.
Cornerback Shakur Brown appeared to have the best chance to hear his name called, while defensive tackle Naquan Jones and linebacker Antjuan Simmons were seen as long shots. Brown quickly signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers following the draft, while Jones landed with the Tennessee Titans. Simmons is still awaiting his NFL fate as of press time, but all three look to prove themselves in 2021 after going undrafted.
As spring practice concludes, the Michigan State program will continue to build a new identity under Mel Tucker, and hopes to begin a new streak of Spartans in the NFL. In honor of that, let’s take a quick look at all the former Spartans currently listed on NFL rosters heading into summer camp.
Note: This list does not include current free agents, such as Simmons, running back Le’Veon Bell, defensive tackle Domata Peko, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and others.
Brian Allen - center - Los Angeles Rams
Allen was drafted by the Rams in the fourth round in 2018 and started nine games in 2019 before suffering a knee injury, missing the rest of the year. He will enter next season as the probable starter with newly acquired quarterback Matthew Stafford taking his snaps.
Joe Bachie - linebacker - Philadelphia Eagles
The undersized Bachie went undrafted in 2020, but was picked up as a free agent by the New Orleans Saints before later being signed off of New Orleans’ practice squad by the Philadelphia Eagles. The former captain and first-team All Big-Ten selection appeared in four games last season, totaling two tackles for Philadelphia. He’ll enter next season as the Eagles’ third-string middle linebacker, and will look to move up on the depth chart.
Update, May 26, 2021: Bachie was waived by the Philadelphia Eagles and later picked up by the Cincinnati Bengals.
We've acquired LB Joe Bachie on waivers.— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) May 26, 2021
Shakur Brown - cornerback - Pittsburgh Steelers
Brown was the best option to continue MSU’s draft streak, but was ultimately not selected over the weekend, with nearly 40 cornerbacks going ahead of him. Pittsburgh picked up last year’s FBS leader in interceptions per game, as Brown will reunite with former Spartan teammates, Cody White and Justin Layne.
Jack Conklin - offensive tackle - Cleveland Browns
The former Spartan standout is the highest drafted player currently active on an NFL roster. Tennessee took Conklin eighth overall in 2016 and has thrived at the next level, making two first-team All-Pro in 2016 and 2020. He was signed by the Cleveland Browns as a free agent in 2019 and will enter next season as the starting left tackle for the Browns.
Kirk Cousins - quarterback - Minnesota Vikings
Cousins’ career has been turbulent since entering the league in 2012 as a fourth-round pick by Washington. After climbing his way up from third-string on the depth chart, the former Big Ten champion led Washington to success and was gifted one of the largest contacts in league history by the Vikings in 2018. The two-time pro bowler had 35 touchdowns on 68 percent completions last season.
Andrew Dowell - outside linebacker - New Orleans Saints
Dowell was picked up as an undrafted free agent in 2019 by the Dallas Cowboys, but was lated waived and picked up by the Saints. He only played in one game on special teams last season. The four-year letterwinner and three-year starter at star linebacker at MSU signed a reserve/future contract with New Orleans in January.
William Gholston - defensive end - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gholston was productive last season on a Tampa Bay defense that proved to be Super Bowl quality. The former fourth-round pick in 2013 found his footing in the league early and was rewarded with a five-year, $27.5 million contract in 2017. In eight seasons, Gholston has totaled 15 sacks and 204 solo tackles.
Joel Heath - defensive tackle - Detroit Lions
The Houston Texans originally signed Heath as a UDFA in 2016, and after played in 32 games over four seasons with the Texans. Heath was waived by Houston in December 2019, and was then claimed by the with the Denver Broncos. Heath opted-out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. The former Spartan defensive end signed a Futures deal with the Lions in February.
Naquan Jones - defensive tackle - Tennessee Titans
Jones was a bit of a long shot to be selected in this year’s draft, but it did not take long for him to get a shot at camp. The former four-star prospect from Evanston, Illinois was picked up as a free agent by the Titans and will have an opportunity to prove himself in Tennessee.
Justin Layne - cornerback - Pittsburgh Steelers
Layne played in all 16 games last season after being selected in the third round by the Steelers in 2019. The former first-team All-Big Ten selection started his Spartan career at wide receiver, but found his niche on the other side of the ball. He ran into some legal trouble this offseason, but could earn a starting role in Pittsburgh in 2021.
Malik McDowell - defensive lineman - Cleveland Browns
McDowell was one of the highest recruits Michigan State landed during the Mark Dantonio era and became very productive during his collegiate career. The former five-star prospect was drafted in the second round by the Seahawks In 2017, but severe off the field issues held him back from seeing the field. He will attempt an NFL comeback after recently signing with Cleveland as a free-agent.
Mike Panasiuk - defensive tackle - Carolina Panthers
The Panthers snagged Panasuik in October of 2020 to their practice squad after he originally went undrafted and signed with the Las Vegas Raiders last year. Panasuik played key role in the Spartans’ run defense that ranked No. 1 in 2018 and No. 2 in 2017. He’ll get an opportunity with Carolina, who signed him to a Futures contract in January.
Taybor Pepper - long snapper - San Fransisco 49ers
Pepper has bounced around a bit since entering the league as a free agent in 2017. The former Spartan has seen time with the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers so far, but has seemed to have found a home in San Fransisco. He will enter next season as the team’s starting long snapper.
Josiah Scott - cornerback - Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars selected Scott in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft and he played in six games for the team. The former second-team All-Big Ten selection will enter next season fighting for a roster spot in a deep corner group for Jacksonville, as the Jaguars just spent a second-round draft pick on Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell, and have Shaquill Griffin, CJ Henderson, Tre Herndon and Sidney Jones already on the roster.
Update, May 18, 2021: Scott was since traded by the Jacksonville Jaguars to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Matt Sokol - tight end - Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers signed Sokol to their practice squad in January and he is currently listed as their fifth tight end on the depth chart. He appeared in just two games with San Diego last season. Sokol originally signed with the Chargers as a UDFA in 2019, and also spent time with the Lions and Jaguars, before landing back with the Chargers.
Trae Waynes - cornerback - Cincinnati Bengals
Waynes was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings with the 11th overall pick in 2015 and is the highest drafted Spartan cornerback in the modern draft era. The former Thorpe Award Semifinalist has been productive so far in his career, totaling seven interceptions and 247 combined tackles. He was rewarded with a three-year, $42 million contract with the Cincinnati Bengals last March, but missed the whole 2020 season with a pectoral injury.
Cody White - wide receiver - Pittsburgh Steelers
White was signed to the Steelers practice squad in September after brief training camp stints with the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants and Denver Broncos. He was intially picked up by Kansas City as a UDFA after deciding to forgo his senior season to enter the draft, but has yet to play a game in the NFL.
Kenny Willekes - defensive end- Minnesota Vikings
An unfortunate leg injury to Willekes sidelined him for all of last season after being drafted by the Vikings in the seventh round in 2020. If there’s anything we know about the former Burlsworth Trophy winner (nation’s most outstanding player that began his career as a walk-on), it’s that he can persevere. Expect him to compete for a roster spot in Minnesota i n2021.
Raequan Williams - defensive tackle - Philadelphia Eagles
The former two-time All-Big Ten defensive tackle went undrafted in 2020, but was quickly added to the Eagles’ roster. In six games last season, Williams totaled three solo tackles and one sack. He’ll enter training camp fighting for a spot on Philadelphia’s active roster, but should at least remain on the team’s practice squad.
Khari Willis - strong safety - Indianapolis Colts
Willis has been productive in two season with the Colts after being selected in the fourth round in 2019. The three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection was a breakout performer last season at safety, tallying 73 tackles, six pass deflections, two interceptions and two sacks in 14 games.