East Lansing — As the NFL draft approaches, there seems little doubt Michigan State will have its share of players hear their name called.
Left tackle Jack Conklin looks like a lock to go in the top 15 — maybe top 10 — while quarterback Connor Cook could go late in the first round or at worst the first half of the second round.
After that, wide receiver Aaron Burbridge and center Jack Allen should be solid mid-round picks, and defensive end Lawrence Thomas, defensive tackle Joel Heath and linebacker Darien Harris hope to get taken before the end of the seven-round event.
The toughest to project, however, appears to be defensive end Shilique Calhoun.
The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder came back for his senior season despite a late first-round, early second-round grade last year, and has — along with Cook — been routinely praised by coach Mark Dantonio for being the keys to Michigan State’s run to the College Football Playoff.
But despite a third straight year with All-American recognition and 10½ sacks, Calhoun has not risen in the projections and, in some cases, dropped.
Few doubt his ability to rush the passer, but some question whether he is strong enough at the point of attack and can be effective defending the run.
“The more I watch, the less excited I am,” an AFC scouting director told Yahoo Sports. “He bursts off the screen and then disappears. I just want him to set a hard edge once. When our coaches got involved (in scouting him) that was the biggest thing. But he’ll go high.”
That feeling has led to some significant variation in projections for Calhoun. Yahoo lists him as a potential late first-round pick to a second-round selection, while ESPN lists him in the third-round area and NFL.com has him between the third and fourth round.
Some of the uncertainty also could surround where Calhoun fits in with NFL teams. He was a rush end in a 4-3 defense at Michigan State, and would fit well in a similar scheme. But many NFL teams play a 3-4, leading some to believe Calhoun will be converted to an outside linebacker.
“At Michigan State, (he had his) hand in the dirt,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “In the NFL he’s gonna be a 3-4 outside linebacker.”
It’s something Calhoun has been hearing since before the Combine.
“There’s definitely talk about linebacker,” Calhoun said last weekend.
Which system Calhoun goes to will have plenty of bearing on his potential. Some believe he will excel at end, while others think he can adapt either way.
“He’s going to be an every-down defensive end,” ESPN analyst and Bill Polian said. “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.”
Added ESPN’s Todd McShay: “He’s a savvy pass rusher. It will be interesting to see, but I think wherever he gets drafted, probably in the day-two range, I think that he’s going to be brought in initially just to get heat on the quarterback, and then he can continue to improve his game in those other areas.”
Calhoun, who will be spending the draft with his family, said coming back for his final season helped him understand the game better.
Mayock praises Allen
One player who has drawn high praise that won’t go in the first round is center Jack Allen.
A bit undersized at 6-foot-1, he was an All-American last season and seems destined for the middle of the draft.
“One of my favorite players I saw on tape this year,” Mayock said of Allen. “He’s only 6-1, 295 and some teams aren’t gonna like him because they don’t think he can handle a nose tackle on his head.
“But trust me, zone teams that want a scrappy, undersized athletic center, they are absolutely gonna love Jack Allen.”