Three Michigan State players selected on Day 3 of the NFL Draft
As the NFL Draft slowly crept its way to a conclusion Saturday, things started heating up for former Michigan State players.
A day after running back Kenneth Walker III went in the second round to the Seattle Seahawks, fellow Spartans Jalen Nailor and Connor Heyward heard their names called late in the sixth round. Offensive lineman AJ Arcuri went one round later, No. 261 overall, to the Los Angeles Rams.
Nailor, who opted to forgo his final season of eligibility at Michigan State, saw that decision pay off when the wide receiver was taken in the sixth round by the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings used the 12th pick of the sixth round — No. 191 overall — to select Nailor.
Soon after, Heyward went 30th in the sixth round — No. 208 overall — and joined his brother, Cam, who is a defensive end for the Steelers.
“I just feel like I can be a dynamic playmaker for them,” Nailor said. “I’m just trying to come in and just make plays whenever the team needs me and just do whatever the team and the coach ask of me. Just do whatever I got to do and do it 110%.”
Nailor, who started nine games in 2021 while missing four with a hand injury, ranked second on the team with receptions (37), receiving yards (695) and touchdown catches (6) and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. He returned from the injury suffered during the win over Michigan to catch six passes for 108 yards in the Peach Bowl victory over Pittsburgh.
He is the first Michigan State wide receiver to be selected since Aaron Burbridge in 2016 when he was taken in the sixth round by the San Francisco 49ers.
“I like this guy on tape,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. “He’s a smooth criminal as a route runner and he accelerates quickly. You watch him with all the other receivers on that Michigan State offense and when he gets to 10 yards, he’s a step or two ahead of the rest. He shows the ability after the catch to create, has great leaping ability to go up. He's not as strong as you'd like to see on contested catches, but he's got a 38-inch vertical (jump) and he takes pride — even though he's not very strong — he takes a lot of pride as a downfield blocker.
“That's a guy I think will come into the Minnesota Vikings and will compete for that No. 4, No. 5 receiver spot and could wind up hanging around and contributing for a while.”
Nailor joins quarterback Kirk Cousins, a former Spartan, as well as defensive end Kenny Willekes, a former teammate at Michigan State.
“I talked to Kenny for a brief moment, for probably about 10 or 15 seconds once I got picked,” Nailor said. “But he’s just excited for me and I'm just excited to be part of the family.”
Heyward, the one-time running back who excelled last season for the Spartans at tight end, became the third member of his family to be selected in the draft, joining his father, Craig, and Cam, who were each first-round selections. Craig Heyward starred at Pittsburgh in college and Cam Heyward is a three-time All-Pro for the Steelers, including last season.
“I always felt like they were interested, but I didn’t want to get my expectations too high,” Connor Heyward said. “My brother was just as surprised as I was, and we were both just extremely happy. I’m not born in Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh means a lot and he’s involved a lot. So, this just means that much more to me.”
After making the position switch before the 2021 season, Heyward went on to start all 13 games at tight end for the Spartans. He hauled in a career-high 35 receptions for 326 yards and two touchdowns while earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
Heyward, who was Michigan State’s leading rusher as a sophomore in 2018, finished his career with 2,265 all-purpose yards and scored 11 career touchdowns. He completed five seasons at Michigan State — Heyward took a redshirt season in 2019 after playing four games — rushing for 825 rushing yards on 211 carries with five touchdowns while catching 96 career passes for 711 yards and six touchdowns.
“They like my versatility and I think that they have a plan for me,” Heyward said. “No matter what that is, I’m going to embrace it and I’m just excited to be a Steeler.”
Heyward is the first Michigan State tight end to be selected since Dion Sims was taken in the fourth round in 2013 by the Miami Dolphins.
“One of the more versatile players and he was my No. 1 fullback/H-back on the board,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Heyward. “This kid brings an attitude, he brings a fire, a passion for the game. I love the kid. I thought he'd go maybe fourth round and here we are at the end of the Round 6 and to get a kid with this type of versatility going to the Steelers. If he’s not a Pittsburgh Steeler, I don't know who is.”
Arcuri started all 13 games last season and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from the media. He played in 40 career games with 25 starts. One of five Spartans to earn Academic All-Big Ten honors five times, Arcuri graduated with his bachelor’s degree in packaging in December 2020 and was named a semifinalist for the 2021 William V. Campbell Trophy.
He is Michigan State’s first offensive lineman selected in the draft since 2018, when Brian Allen, who recently won a Super Bowl ring with Los Angeles, was a fourth-round selection by the Rams.