Michigan State hasn’t had a first-round pick in the NFL Draft since offensive tackle Jack Conklin went No. 8 overall to Tennessee in 2016, and it looks like the Spartans will get shut out of the opening round again this year.
At least, that’s the way ESPN Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. sees things at this point, a little more than a week before the NFL Combine begins in Indianapolis.
That’s not to say there aren’t any Michigan State players that will hear their name called when the three-day draft begins on April 25. And at least one player has a chance to go early.
“The main one is the corner and I think when you look at Justin Layne with his length and the way he played, had some really good games when he did look like a shutdown corner,” Kiper said. “I have him right now as ninth highest-rated corner, has the same grade as the seventh, so that puts him in I think right now in the second-round mix, second-round discussion.
“If he has a big workout … I always made points when I was watching them, and he was one their best defensive players, if not their most impressive defensive player and one of the better corners in Big Ten. I would say Layne, with his size and his ability could be, should be by far the first (MSU player) drafted.”
Layne opted to forgo his final season of eligibility with the Spartans and did not play in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 31.
He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from Pro Football Focus and was a second-team All-Big Ten choice by the media, coaches, Associated Press, Athlon Sports and Phil Steele. Layne had 15 pass break-ups, tied for eighth most in an MSU single-season and enough to tie for first in the Big Ten and 10th in the FBS. His 16 passes defended also ranked tied for first in the Big Ten. He recorded a career-high 72 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and had at least one pass break-up in eight of 12 games while also getting a handful of snaps on offense at wide receiver.
It seems clear Layne will be the first Spartan selected, but odds are wide receiver Felton Davis, safety Khari Willis and running back LJ Scott also will get drafted. All three, along with Layne, will take part in the Combine, though Davis won’t be going through any of the on-field testing as he is rehabbing from the ruptured Achilles he suffered during the season.
“They’re, for me, Day 3 possibilities,” Kiper said. “I think Willis maybe in the that fifth-round area depending on how he works out.”
Day 3 includes rounds 4-7, and Kiper said workouts and numbers posted at the Combine will help determine where all three land in the draft.
“Scott, it’s kind of a crowded running back group, I think a pretty strong running back group overall,” Kiper said. “There’s only one first-rounder, but I think there’s five potential second-round running backs, five potential third-round running backs. So a lot of these running backs will drop a little farther than they should because a lot of teams don’t need running backs, so those third-rounders say three of them drop to the fourth or fifth and that puts everybody down a round or two.
“So I’d say Day 3 for Davis, Scott and Willis, and it depends on their workouts to distinguish between a fourth- and a seventh-rounder.”
Kiper also noted it was a smart move for defensive end Kenny Willekes to return for his senior season. Willekes was named the Big Ten’s top defensive lineman, but suffered a broken leg in the bowl game. Also opting to return for their final season were linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive tackle Raequan Williams.