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NFL draft analysts see Spartans flying off the board

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Shilique Calhoun

Shilique Calhoun was the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year as a sophomore in 2013 and followed that with two more first-team All-conference selections as well as two straight second-team All-American honors in his junior and senior seasons.

But entering the NFL Scouting Combine last week, some wondered whether the 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end would be better served as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense at the NFL level.

Calhoun said last week it hadn’t been discussed much with him, saying the idea was “mist in the air.”

In Sunday’s testing, Calhoun proved he could play multiple positions. He ranked third in the 3-cone drill (6.97 seconds), tied for fourth in the 20-yard shuttle (4.25 seconds), tied for fourth in the vertical jump (35.0 inches) and tied for 11th in the 40-yard dash (4.82 seconds). Calhoun also leapt 115.0 inches in the broad jump.

But analysts at the Combine still see him as an end.

“He’s an established pass rusher and even more important than that, he can play every down,” ESPN analyst and Bill Polian said. “He’s going to be an every down defensive end. I’m not sure he’s not a right defensive end in a 3-4, really, with exceptional pass-rushing skills for that position. He’s a guy who has three-down ability, and multi-defense value, so he’s a value pick somewhere on the first day of the draft, or at very least, the second day.”

Most projection shave Calhoun going either late in the first round or early in the second.

He finished his career at Michigan State with 27 sacks, second-most in program history, and 44 tackles for loss.

“He’s going to have to improve in terms of consistency versus the run, lower-body strength and those sorts of things,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. “But at the end of the day, if you can rush the passer there’s a place for you in the league, and he does that with relentlessness and quick hands. He’s a savvy pass rusher.”

NFL experts also came away from the Combine impressed with several other Spartans.

Jack Conklin

Offensive tackle Jack Conklin solidified his position in the first round while center Jack Allen might have even moved up some draft boards.

“He’s all football player — he’s powerful, he’s aggressive, he comes off the ball,” Polian said of Conklin. “He might end up at right tackle when it’s all said and done … But the thing that impresses you is the heart, the intensity, the power with which he plays. He’s a ‘sure-make’ guy.”

“Had a great week at the Senior Bowl,” Sirius XM NFL analyst Jim Miller said of Allen. “He comes with a lot of experience. What every team is looking for is the versatility; center-guard combo, he could potentially be a plug-and-play player, probably a mid-rounder.”

Wide receiver Aaron Burbridge also had a solid showing.

The single-season leader in catches (85) at Michigan State projects as a mid-round pick and tied for the most reps on the bench press (20) among the wide receivers at the Combine. In the running and jumping tests, Burbridge was clocked at 4.56 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 7.22 seconds in the 3-cone drill, 4.31 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle and 11.90 seconds in the 60-yard shuttle.

“I like the size, I like the speed, I like his hands, I like his routes,” Polian said of Burbridge. “He too is competitive. That’s a repetitive statement, but that’s what Michigan State’s about. You don’t play for Mark Dantonio unless you’re competitive and tough and resilient. At the receiver position, that’s a very, very valuable trait to have and he has it. He’s a guy you’re going to count on to perform on Sunday.”

Defensive linemen Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath also performed at the Combine.

Joel Heath

Thomas, who settled in at defensive end last season, tied for fourth place with a 35-inch vertical jump.

He was also clocked at 4.98 seconds in the 40 and had a broad jump of 113.0 inches.

“He may not wow you with numbers, I don’t think he’s going to be a guy that’s all of a sudden going to be a double-digit sack guy in the NFL,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said. “But I think he’s got enough strength and ability to hold the point of attack and make a few plays running up and down the line of scrimmage. People will be intrigued by him a little bit.”

Heath had a 33-inch vertical leap and also recorded a broad jump of 113 inches. He was timed at 5.02 seconds in the 40, 4.52 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle and 7.44 seconds in the 3-cone drill.

“He never takes a play off, he works hard to the quarterback every single play, or tracking down ball carriers, and he’s just a worker bee,” Miller said. “Ninety percent of the NFL locker rooms are made up of the worker bees. I was a worker bee in the NFL; granted, I played quarterback, but it was a struggle to make the roster sometimes every year, but you stick for a long time in the NFL, and that could be Joel Heath.”