Here's a deep dive into MSU's NFL Draft prospects

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne catches a pass during an NFL pro day.

When it comes to the NFL Draft, beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder.

While some teams might covet one player, others could look at the same prospect and have a vastly different view. Which view is correct probably won’t truly reveal itself for at least a couple years.

With the NFL Draft set to begin Thursday night, two former Michigan State defensive backs find themselves right in the middle of those differing opinions.

For cornerback Justin Layne, it’s a matter of being a fringe first-round pick or going as late as the fourth round. Safety Khari Willis likely isn’t a first-round selection, but projections have him going as early as the second round and as late as the sixth.

By Saturday evening as the draft concludes with rounds four to seven, both will get the answers they’re looking for while a handful of other former Spartans will be hoping they’ve heard their name called, as well.

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Layne, the 6-foot-2 corner who left Michigan State after his junior season, likely will be the first Spartan taken. According to ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr., that could happen by the end of the first round.

“Layne, you’d certainly watch him in coverage, I think every game you could see the improvement,” Kiper said. “Then you test out and you have the length obviously that everybody wants in a corner. Everything about him to me indicates he could be a late first. He could be one of those guys that didn’t necessarily get mocked as a late first but goes in the late first.”

That’s not the way Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network sees it for Layne, who began his career as a wide receiver before making the quick shift to defense as a freshman and recording 15 pass breakups in 2018 while earning second-team All-Big Ten honors.

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“I thought second round there, somebody who's a former wide receiver who's got tremendous ball skills,” Jeremiah said. “There's always teams looking for size, speed corners. I would say right now you're probably looking more in the third-round range is his sweet spot. I don't think he would get out of the fourth round. I think that's right about where he finds himself. He's got real good ball skills. He ran fast enough at 4.5 flat. That's where I think he goes.”

The feelings on Willis vary even more. At 5-11 and 213 pounds, Willis has wowed everyone with his maturity and understanding of the game.

However, there is some debate over whether he has the speed and overall athleticism to excel at the next level. That debate is clear in where Willis is projected to be drafted.

Jeremiah, again, isn’t as high on the former Spartans captain.

“I have him in that sixth-round range,” Jeremiah said. “I just thought he was somebody that needed to be down in the box. He ran faster than I thought he would in the low 4.5s, but to me I kind of have him in that — I would say the fifth-, sixth-round range is where I would have him.

“It's a pretty good group. There's good depth there at that position. So I think that could end up hurting him a little bit.”

Kiper sees things a bit differently.

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“As far as Willis is concerned, he’s a steadying force, he’s your leader, he’s kind of the quarterback of your defense,” Kiper said. “He’s a guy that you look at physically, athletically, he’s field fast, he’s instinctive, he tests out well athletically with that 34.5(-inch) vertical.

“I would be very surprised if Layne got out of the early to mid-second. I would be surprised if Willis went any later than the early third.”

Michigan State safety Khari Willis catches a pass during an NFL pro day.

While Layne and Willis appear to be locks to get drafted, the Spartans have a handful of other players that would be happy hearing their name at any point over the three-day draft.

The most likely to get selected are running back LJ Scott and wide receiver Felton Davis. Both were hampered by injuries as seniors as Scott was in and out of the lineup with an ankle problem while Davis ruptured his Achilles against Michigan on Oct. 20 and is just now getting back to full workouts.

The inability to play a full season has affected both players, who have had productive college careers and likely would have projected higher if healthy.

“I think when you look at the wide receiver group in general, I think Felton Davis could still be a late-round pick, the same thing with Scott,” Kiper said. “It just depends upon when they were right. Did you see them in the game when it indicated that they could be future pros? That’s one of those hit-or-miss things for day three.”

Both were invited to the NFL Combine and they’ll likely be on the edge of their seats on Saturday.

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“LJ Scott, I don't think he'll get picked,” Jeremiah said. “I have him as kind of a seventh-round priority free agent type. There's just too many other running backs that have kind of pushed him down the board. 

“And then when we get to the wide receiver, Felton Davis, I have him as a late-round guy. I have him in the seventh round. Big frame, I thought he struggled against press, and obviously you've got the Achilles.”

Other Michigan State players hoping to get drafted but more likely to sign as free agents include offensive lineman David Beedle, tight end Matt Sokol, linebacker Andrew Dowell and linebacker Jon Reschke.

Michigan State draft prospects

Justin Layne, CB: Athletic and long corner that excels in man-to-man coverage. Round 1-2

Khari Willis, S: Smart player who is rarely out of position but lacks top-end speed and athleticism. Round 2-4

Felton Davis, WR: Good size and strength with average speed and quickness. Achilles injury limited him leading up to draft. Round 6-7

LJ Scott, RB: Big, physical back that doesn’t have top-end speed and was limited to just five games in his senior season. Round 6-7

Andrew Dowell, LB: Athletic outside linebacker who lacks ideal size for the next level. FA

Matt Sokol, TE: Good size but had trouble consistently hanging on to the ball. FA

David Beedle, OL: A versatile lineman who was hampered by injuries for much of his career. FA

Jon Reschke, LB: Physical, athletic linebacker that dealt with two significant injuries and sat out 2017. FA

Twitter: @mattcharboneau