Spartans wait their turn to be called in NFL Draft

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Having a Michigan State player selected in the NFL Draft is nothing new.

After all, the Spartans are just one of five programs that have had at least one player taken in every year of the draft since the AFL-NFL merger in 1967, joining Florida, Michigan, Nebraska and Southern Cal.

Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne

And as the 2019 Draft began on Thursday night, it was almost certain that streak would be extended. The only question was when the first Michigan State player might go off the board and how many might be selected by the time the draft concludes on Saturday.

Landing a first-rounder for the first time since 2016 was possible but not likely. And by the time the opening round came to a close Thursday night, the first Spartan was still waiting to be selected. Michigan State last had a first-round pick in 2016 when offensive tackle Jack Conklin went No. 8 overall to the Tennessee Titans. Defensive lineman Malik McDowell went early in the second round — No. 35 overall — to Seattle in 2017.

When the second round begins Friday night, cornerback Justin Layne could hear his name early while safety Khari Willis is also likely to get drafted sometime in the second or third round, which will be completed by the end of the night with rounds 4-7 taking place on Saturday.

Layne, who left Michigan State after his junior season, was projected anywhere from the late first round to the early third round. ESPN Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has had Layne going earlier than most other analysts and suggested this week Layne could go with one of the final picks in 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.”

Layne is a 6-foot-2 former wide receiver who has the length and athleticism most teams covet and played in a defense that has produced a pair of first-round corners in recent years with Darqueze Dennard going No. 24 overall to Cincinnati in 2014 and Trae Waynes No. 11 overall to Minnesota in 2015.

Michigan State safety Khari Willis runs through drills during an NFL pro day.

After Layne, Willis seems like the best bet to get selected. The analysis on the former Spartans captain has varied greatly but there’s a good chance he goes on Friday.

“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 ½ (-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.”

Things are up in the air from that point for Michigan State players.

Both running back LJ Scott and wide receiver Felton Davis are expecting to get drafted, but both will almost certainly be waiting until Saturday to hear their names as rounds 4-7 will be conducted.

Each had his share of production while at Michigan State, but both were bothered by injuries as seniors. Scott missed all but five games with an ankle injury while Davis ruptured his Achilles on Oct. 20.

“It just depends upon when they were right,” Kiper said this week. “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.

“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.”

It’s also Saturday at best for a handful of other former Spartans who might more likely be free-agent signings. That group includes offensive lineman David Beedle, tight end Matt Sokol, linebacker Andrew Dowell and linebacker Jon Reschke.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau