Simmer down, Spartans fans: ESPN's Mel Kiper hasn't forgotten about your guys

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State safety Khari Willis catches a pass during an NFL pro day.

It appears a couple of Michigan State defensive backs are making a jump up draft boards, including a significant move in the right direction for one.

Just last month, ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said safety Khari Willis was likely to go on the third day of the draft, meaning somewhere in rounds four to seven. On Tuesday, though, in unveiling his latest mock draft, Kiper said Willis has taken a considerable leap as the draft is roughly a month away.

“I like Khari Willis as a solid second- or third-round pick coming out,” Kiper said on a conference call with reporters. “With his production and the way he played at Michigan State, I think he could be a two or a three.”

Willis played well at the Senior Bowl then followed that with an impressive run at the NFL Combine, leading all defensive backs with 22 reps on the bench press and running a 4.52 40-yard dash. That came after his senior season when the 5-foot-11, 213-pound captain recorded 84 tackles with two interceptions and 10 pass breakups.

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He started 30 of 46 career games and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from Pro Football Focus last season and has graded high on leadership and football IQ.

“They say they like what they see,” Willis said at the NFL Combine. “They’re giving me pretty positive feedback. Some of the things I thought were my strengths they thought they were as well. Some of the things I thought I needed to work on they thought the same. So far, so good.”

Cornerback Justin Layne also is impressing NFL personnel.

Kiper said last month he saw Layne as a second- or third-round pick. Now, Kiper believes Layne can work his way into the first round.

“He’s 6-2, basically, over 190 pounds, great athletic ability, he’s got the long arms and the way he played,” Kiper said. “When you combine all that together, late first round wouldn’t shock me because you see corners like him go at some point there, but I don’t think he gets out of round two.”

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Layne used his junior season becoming a shutdown corner, eventually opting to forgo his final season at Michigan State and skip the Redbox Bowl. He finished with a career-high 15 pass break-ups, which was tied for the most in the Big Ten and 10th in the nation. He also had an interception and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors while being named first team by Pro Football Focus.

Depending on how each team sees Layne, Kiper believes Layne will be gone by the second day of the draft.

Justin Layne is moving up draft boards, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper.

“If you say where does he end up, I can’t see a corner that has the length he does that could get out of the second round,” Kiper said. “I just think the second round would be a great spot for him.”

Some have questioned Layne’s speed. He ran a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash — not the fastest and not the slowest. But it’s his length that team will likely be looking at.

“He reminds me a lot of Trae Waynes really in a lot of ways,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s long, can really catch the football. He’s got good raw speed, and he can run and jump. And he can tackle, and I think if you can tackle at this level, good things are ahead of you."

Twitter: @mattcharboneau