Draft expert: Strong NFL combine could vault Michigan State's Justin Layne into first round

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Former Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne could work his way into the first round with a strong NFL combine.

The NFL Scouting Combine begins this week in Indianapolis, and for each of Michigan State’s four players that are schedule to attend, the annual event offers a unique opportunity.

Cornerback Justin Layne, wide receiver Felton Davis, safety Khari Willis and running back LJ Scott will all be taking part, and each has the chance to dramatically increase their stock ahead of April’s NFL Draft.

At the top of the list is Layne, who opted to forgo his final season of eligibility with the Spartans and did not play in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 31. He’s seen as a solid second-round pick, but could vault himself into the first round if he stands out at the combine.

“He’s somebody that I think, if he runs well you’re gonna hear a lot about him coming out of the Combine because the tape’s really good,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He’s somebody that I’m definitely intrigued by.”

More: Former Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne in 'second-round mix'

The 6-foot-3 Layne earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from Pro Football Focus in 2018 and was a second-team All-Big Ten choice by the media, coaches, Associated Press, Athlon Sports and Phil Steele. He 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.

Layne recorded a career-high 72 tackles, including 2.5 for losses, 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.

“Justin Layne I have kind of in that second-round conversation,” Jeremiah said. “No wasted movement. He’s smooth, he’s patient, he can play the deep ball, he’s got outstanding instincts. You see him, he’s got nice plant-drive to get a little burst there. Obviously, the size you’re looking for at the position.”

While Layne could move up into the first-round range, where Davis falls might be one of the most intriguing storylines of the upcoming draft. He suffered a ruptured Achilles in the loss to Michigan in October when he had 31 catches for 474 yards and four touchdowns while his 14 touchdown receptions rank 11th in Michigan State history.

Davis won’t be able to take part in any of the physical testing, but will be on hand at the combine to meet with team executives and go through medical testing. Last week, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said he expected Davis to be a late-round pick.

As for Scott, a lot will depend on what teams are evaluating. The Spartans’ leading rusher in each of his first three seasons, Scott appeared in just five games last season while battling injuries.

The bigger issue, Jeremiah said, is the fact he was playing behind a poor offensive line.

“LJ Scott was tough to (evaluate) because there’s just no room,” Jeremiah said. “You’re watching the running back and there’s people in his lap every time he touches the football. Tough to get an evaluation from him. Obviously, you kinda go back to when he was younger and see some of the production.

“The one thing I do like about him, he’s in there a lot on pass (protection). A lot of these guys, a lot of these teams are free releasing these backs. You get a chance to see him in pass protection, he’s square, he’s solid. That’s one of the better things he brings to the table. So, he’s definitely somebody that, to me, he’s gonna be a late-round guy and you hope that you’re gonna get the younger version of the player.”

Willis impressed many during his week at the Senior Bowl and has a reputation as a leader and a hard worker. Backing that up with a solid showing at the combine will help his status.

More: Michigan State product Khari Willis hopes to show off versatility at Senior Bowl

“I think Willis maybe in the that fifth-round area depending on how he works out,” Kiper said last week.

Willis finished with a career-high 84 tackles, 10 pass break-ups and two interceptions for the Spartans as a senior and, according to Jeremiah, will have to prove a few things to solidify that fifth-round prediction.

“I just wrote down he needs to play in the box,” Jeremiah said. “He’ll play some over the slot, I just had some questions about his speed. You’ll see him be very competitive in coverage against a tight end but to me, I had him as kinda a late-round guy in that safety mix.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau