Michigan State should keep age-old streak going in new-look NFL Draft

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

If the NFL is holding its annual draft, you can bet on a Michigan State player getting selected.

Since the start of the common NFL Draft in 1967, at least one player from Michigan State has been drafted every year. That streak isn’t about to end now, as the 2020 NFL Draft is set to begin Thursday and wrap up on Saturday evening. While the draft will look different this year with teams working remotely, the constant of a Spartan hearing his name called will continue.

Former Michigan State cornerback Josiah Scott has drawn high marks from NFL Draft analysts.

The only questions are how many Michigan State players will be selected and when will they come off the board?

Seven Michigan State players took part in the NFL Combine at the end of February and at least another seven have been working out, hoping to get their shot even after Michigan State’s pro day was wiped out because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While it seems nearly certain a Spartan won’t be selected during the first round on Thursday — the Spartans haven’t had a first-rounder since Jack Conklin in 2016 — anything could happen after that. The chances increase with Friday’s second and third rounds, and Saturday could be a busy day with the remaining four rounds of the draft.

The best bet to go first is a close one, but cornerback Josiah Scott has been getting the most attention recently. A three-year starter who opted to forgo his final season of eligibility, Scott finished his career with seven interceptions and 25 pass breakups in just 30 games.

He drew rave reviews from the draft analysts after running in impressive 4.42 40-yard dash at the Combine.

“I'm a huge Josiah Scott fan,” said Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network. “I have him as the highest-rated player from the school this year. He's got seven career picks. He's played outside. I think he's going to be a Day One starting nickel. He's very instinctive. You see him pattern read. He's fluid. He can find the ball down the field. He just lost some 50/50 balls due to size on the outside, but I think he's going to be a really good nickel.”

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. thinks there are a handful of Michigan State players that will bring value in the mid- to late rounds, but Scott stands out.

“I like the tape,” Kiper said. “I like what I saw of him. I like the way he turns, I like the way he flips his hips, I like his feet. I think Josiah Scott has a chance. He’s going to help the secondary, whether he’s a starter, nickel, fourth corner, he’s going to be a guy that plays in the league for a long time I think, as I’d say a third- to fifth-round pick.”

After Scott, there’s a trio of Spartans who could go at just about any point as opinions have seemed to vary significantly on linebacker Joe Bachie, defensive end Kenny Willekes and defensive tackle Raequan Williams.

Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie was one of Michigan State’s most productive players, finishing with 285 tackles, including 27.5 for a loss, eight sacks, five interceptions, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Bachie was one of Michigan State’s most productive players, finishing his career with 285 tackles, including 27.5 for a loss, eight sacks, five interceptions, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. But he missed the final five games of his career after the Big Ten suspended him for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Bachie addressed it at the combine, but it’s sure to be on the minds of some teams.

“It’ll be interesting to see when he comes off the board,” Jeremiah said. “He’s a really good player who’s really come up in the process when you talk to coaches that have met with him during this time of the year that have been very impressed with his knowledge.”

Willekes has been one of the more decorated Spartans. He was the 2018 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year after leading the conference with 20.5 tackles for loss as a junior, earned second-team Walter Camp All-American honors in two straight seasons and won the Burlsworth Trophy honoring the best former walk-on in the nation.

He finished his career with a program-best 51 tackles for loss and impressed coaches and scouts at the Senior Bowl. Some projections have Willekes going on Day 2, but his size — 6-foot-3, 264 pounds — could be a knock.

“I'm a little bit lower on him,” Jeremiah said. “He's kind of more in that fifth-, sixth-round range for me. Just doesn't have big-time get-off, doesn't have big-time burst coming off the edge, but he can use that long arm. He beats up on tight ends, but he's more down the line for me.”

Williams flirted with coming out last season, but returned to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors from the Associated Press for the second straight year while recording 160 career tackles, including 29 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in 50 career games, including 42 consecutive starts.

“He can collapse the pocket,” Jeremiah said. “I thought he got washed by angle blocks. He's another one that I didn't think had big-time get-off burst. He's got the ability, though. He’s got a nice little trait, the ability to control the wrist and do some things there with his hand fighting.”

Quarterback Brian Lewerke is another potential late-round pick. He finished his Michigan State career as the all-time leader in total yards with 9,548 yards (8,293 passing, 1,255 rushing) and started 38 of 41 career games.

“I've talked to some folks around the league; there's some quarterback coaches that have really fallen in love with this kid,” Jeremiah said. “I say that in terms of fourth, fifth round. It would not shock me if he went a little bit higher than I thought he would. He's got nice velocity. I just have concern about his touch and decision making.”

Wide receivers Darrell Stewart and Cody White, who left after his junior season, are also hoping to be late-round picks after attending the combine.

“Cody White just has a lot of drops when I studied him,” Jeremiah said in February. “I thought he was more of a one-speed player. … Darrell Stewart, another wide receiver, who I thought was a free agent, who is good on bubbles and tunnel screens. He can work some in the middle of the field, I just didn't see a lot of juice.”

Other Michigan State players to keep an eye on late on Saturday include safety David Dowell, defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk, offensive lineman Tyler Higby, punter Jake Hartbarger, cornerback Josh Butler and linebacker Tyriq Thompson.

Michigan State NFL prospects

Here’s a look at Michigan State’s players in the NFL Draft:

CB Josiah Scott (5-9/185): A freshman All-American in 2017, Scott finished his career with seven interceptions and 25 pass breakups before forgoing his final season of eligibility. He ran a 4.42 40 at the NFL Combine. Projected draft position: Rounds 3-4.

DE Kenny Willekes (6-4/264): Holds the program record for tackles for loss with 51 and earned back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten honors. Fared well at the Senior Bowl and has been lauded for his work ethic. Projected draft position: Rounds 4-5.

LB Joe Bachie (6-1/230): A tackling machine, Bachie excelled while being a bit undersized. He’ll likely be knocked for his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Projected draft position: Rounds 4-5.

DT Raequan Williams (6-4/3-8): A disruptive player in the middle of the defense, Williams started 42 consecutive games and had 160 career tackles. Projected draft position: Rounds 4-5.

QB Brian Lewerke (6-3/213): A three-year starter, Lewerke is the program leader in total yards but struggled with accuracy and never had a breakout season. Projected draft position: Rounds 6-7.

WR Darrell Stewart (6-0/212): A solid player that doesn’t stand out in any one area but is a reliable pass catcher. Questions on his speed – he didn’t run the 40 at the Combine — will push him down the board. Projected draft position: Round 7-free agent.

WR Cody White (6-3/217): He opted to forgo his final season of eligibility after catching 66 passes as a junior. Versatile player that could flourish in the right situation. Projected draft position: Round 7-free agent.

Other potential Michigan State draft picks: S David Dowell (6-1/209), DT Mike Panasiuk (6-4/300), P Jake Hartbarger (6-4/194), OL Tyler Higby (6-5/300), TE Matt Seybert (6-4/252), CB Josh Butler (6-0/182), LB Tyriq Thompson (6-1/228).


Twitter: @mattcharboneau