Michigan State could have players going in virtually every round of this spring's NFL draft, including cornerback Trae Waynes, who ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has going No. 16 overall to Houston in his latest mock selections.
But the player who got the most attention on Kiper's conference call Wednesday was a guy who will be around for at least another season at Michigan State — left tackle Jack Conklin. In fact, Kiper was waiting to see if Conklin — a third-year sophomore — would declare this year.
"I think he's a first-round-caliber player, yes I do," Kiper said. "Brandon Scherff from Iowa — there's not much separating Scherff from Conklin. Some may even think Conklin's a more highly rated player. So yeah, he was on my radar, I thought maybe he'd come out because he's got such a high grade.
"But by going back, you're looking at the elite of the elite. Jack Conklin has a chance to be a very, very high first-round pick. Certainly the first offensive tackle off the board. Great player."
Kiper believes Conklin's return, along with quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun will keep Michigan State among the elite in the nation.
"That really helps Connor Cook, getting him back," Kiper said of Conklin. "It helps Mark Dantonio to keep this thing going at Michigan State. So they lose some real good players but getting Conklin back, getting Cook back really assists them moving into next year. You lose those two and you're basically kind of rebuilding. You get those two back along with Shilique Calhoun, that really is beneficial."
Kiper expected Calhoun to come out this season, but with the depth at defensive end in this year's draft, his return not only helps Michigan State but could help him move up next year's board.
"A little surprised he opted to go back," Kiper said. "I thought he would have been in the first-round mix. Next year, with all the junior defensive lineman that came out, if he can — obviously play-to-play consistency for all these guys is important and improving your pass-rush technique. All those things, if he works on and brings together, he could be a top-15 pick next season. He can improve from a being a late-one, early-two to a top-15 pick by going back."
Cook, too, should have an opportunity to improve his stock.
"There were some throws that needed to be delivered accurately at times that weren't," Kiper said. "He's the kind of guy, with his size and his arm, he can make all the throws, he can beat you from the pocket very effectively. I think Cook could go into next year and be right there. There's a lot of sophomore quarterbacks that are gonna become junior quarterbacks — Christian Hackenberg one of them, at Penn State, and several others. (Trevone) Boykin from TCU is a real good player. Cardale Jones at Ohio State, we'll see how he does next year, if he wins that starting job. So there's gonna be competition, but (Cook) has got a chance to be the first or second quarterback off the board next year."
As for the seniors that will looking to get drafted, Kiper sees wide receiver Tony Lippett as a fourth- or fifth-round selection while linebacker Taiwan Jones is a mid-round pick. Safety Kurtis Drummond should land somewhere in the middle of the draft and running back Jeremy Langford is a fifth- or sixth-rounder.
Here's more of what Kiper had to say on several Michigan State prospects:
*On Jones: "In the old NFL, back in the '60s, '70s and even '80s, he would have been a third- or fourth-round pick but you need guys that can run and cover better. To me, he's more of a mid-round type of guy now."
*On Drummond: "I like Drummond. I think Drummond, if he can show the coverage ability at the workouts and show he has the skills that you need to be able to handle those responsibilities, he could be a fourth- or fifth-round type of guy. Right now in terms of safeties, right now Drummond is No. 5 to No. 6 overall. And like I said there is a lot of third- to fifth-rounders at safety. All that group after (Landon) Collins (of Alabama) is in that mix to go third through sixth round.
*On Langford: "A lot of junior running backs came out. That hurts the seniors a little bit. He's not flashy, he's just a guy that keeps the chains moving and can do everything you need a running back to do in terms of blocking and catching the ball. I think he's a fifth- or sixth-round type of guy."
*On defensive end Marcus Rush: We'll see. He'll have (to overcome) the height and the arm length. You've got a guy with a great motor, an overachiever in a rotation as a pass rusher, on special teams. I think late rounds maybe would be a possibility."