The NFL Combine has kicked off with player and coach interviews, but the real action happens Friday, when the first workouts begin for potential NFL draft picks. The NFL Combine ends February 29 and MSU will have seven players from last season’s team participating in the events.
Seven invites equals the most for the Mark Dantonio era at MSU, tying the most ever MSU has sent (seven prospects at 2000 NFL Combine). The seven players rank second most among Big Ten teams, behind Ohio State’s 14, and tied for ninth among all schools in the country.
One notable Spartan missing from the combine is outside linebacker Darien Harris. The captain will still have an opportunity to showcase himself in front of NFL Scouts on MSU’s pro day, which takes place March 16. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said Harris should not be worried about failing to receive an invitation.
“There were several players who didn’t get an invite that were surprising this year and it doesn’t impact whether they can go in the first three, four rounds in the draft,” Kiper said. “I’ve seen guys go in the second round after not getting invited, that could happen.”
Now, let’s take a look at the seven MSU invites to the NFL Combine and how they project to the NFL.
Cook became the winningest quarterback in MSU history this past season, while also setting records in touchdown passes with 71, passing yards with 9,191 and total offense with 9,403. He was 34-5 as MSU’s starting quarterback, including a 23-2 record against Big Ten opponents.
Cook won the 2015 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which recognizes the nation’s top quarterback. Cook finally made the first-team All-Big Ten squad after being voted second team the previous two seasons. He was the fifth Spartan quarterback to win Big Ten Quarterback of the Year, the first to do it since Steve Juday in 1965.
Cook finished ninth in the Heisman voting, the first Spartan to finish in the top ten since Javon Ringer in 2008. He was also the first player in Big Ten history to win the Big Ten championship game MVP twice.
Despite the awards and records, Cook has been questioned about his leadership and personality, resulting in what seemed to be a sure first round pick to teetering on the edge.
“When I go back and watch him, there are some passes that needed to be precise at times that weren’t,” Kiper said. “As for the great leadership qualities that you need to galvanize a team, the interviews for Connor Cook are going to be important, I have a second round grade on him.”
With Cook, teams would get a tall quarterback with big hands and great vision. Cook has great pocket presence, but has shown to be mobile enough to avoid pressure. A solid combine, with both the interview process and workouts, may vault him back into the discussion for a first round pick.
OT Jack Conklin – Plainwell, Mich. (Plainwell) – 6-6 – 325
Conklin earned first-team All-American honors from USA Today and Sporting News, as well as earning a first-team All-Big Ten nomination. Conklin was a three-year starter on the MSU offensive line, accumulating 38 starts in 39 career appearances.
The former walk-on Conklin was an integral part to an MSU line that helped the rushing attack average 188.3 yards a game in their last three Big Ten games, and helped hold Penn State without a sack for the only time last season.
Conklin is the lone Spartan who decided to forgo his senior season and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft. Conklin has the the highest rating of any MSU player, and is rated as the third best offensive tackle by NFL.com’s Mike Mayock and Kiper.
“Jack Conklin from Michigan State, outstanding left tackle in college,” Kiper said. “A versatile lineman like Conklin, who projects to three different positions, in this day and age in the NFL is tremendously important.”
He is the first offensive tackle under Dantonio to be invited to the NFL Combine.
Calhoun was elected to the All-Big Ten team for the third consecutive season, becoming the first Spartan defensive lineman to achieve that feat. He was also a three-time second-team All-American, and he finished the season with career highs in sacks at 10.5 and tackles for loss at 15, and the sack total was good for third in the Big Ten.
Shilique Calhoun was the fourth Spartan under Dantonio to be elected as a team captain twice. Calhoun appeared in 54 career games, including a team-high 41 consecutive starts to close his career, garnering 42 starts overall. He finished his career tied for the most games played ever by a Spartan with 54.
Calhoun has an elite pass rushing ability, and had a knack for coming up with big plays when the team needed it. In a close rivalry game against Michigan, Calhoun finished with two sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and helped limit the Wolverines to a season low 230 total yards of offense.
“You think late first is a possibility with his pass-rush ability, but you’d like to see him not get influenced as much against the run and be more of a factor consistency-wise week to week,” Kiper said. “But, he can when he’s on his game and he brings that A-game as a pass rusher off the edge and he’s a force to be reckoned with. He’s in the late first round discussion, but I have him more as a mid second round pick.”
Kiper rated Calhoun as the seventh best defensive end prospect heading into the NFL Combine.
Burbridge followed Tony Lippett’s Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award in 2014 with one of his own after compiling a Big Ten best 85 receptions and 1,258 yards. His 85 receptions set an MSU single season record, and his seven 100 yard receiving games was one shy of the record, set by B.J. Cunningham in 2011.
Burbridge was elected as a first-team All-Big Ten, and was an All-American Honorable Mention. He had a tremendously high rate of receptions resulting in touchdowns or first downs at 72 percent, and was easily Cook’s favorite target to throw to.
Burbridge ended his career ranked second in receptions in MSU history with 165, as well as seventh in receiving yards with 2,174. Burbridge has showed elite athleticism and great hands, making spectacular catches like he did against Air Force in the Spartans third game of the season.
The Senior Bowl welcomed Burbridge, and he finished the game with two catches for 43 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown catch on the last play of the game.
“You can see here at the Senior Bowl that he's a competitor; very quick, catches the tough pass,” Mayock said in a press release. “I think he's got toughness and could play special teams.”
C Jack Allen – Hinsdale, Ill. (Hinsdale Central) – 6-2 – 296
Allen exhibited immense durability throughout his four season at MSU, starting 47 total games, two shy of Joel Foreman’s school record for an offensive lineman. Allen was only the third MSU offensive lineman to be selected as a first-team All-American, and only the fifth to be selected as a member of the first-team All-Big Ten multiple times.
Allen compiled 77 total knockdowns in 10 regular season games last year, and was MSU’s offensive player of the week against both Central Michigan and Maryland. Allen will be the first center under Dantonio to receive a combine invite, and was the number one rated center at the 2016 Senior Bowl, where he received praise from scouts and draft experts.
“Allen is a very quick, tough kid,” Mayock said in a press release. “It's a really good center class. Centers don't get valued as highly as they should. I don't know what round he's going in, I just know he's going to make somebody's team, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if he ends up starting somewhere.”
Allen is rated as the fifth overall center by Mayock, and fourth overall by Kiper.
DL Lawrence Thomas – Detroit, Mich. (Renaissance) – 6-3 – 281
Thomas finished his fifth-year senior season by setting career highs with 38 tackles, five tackles for loss and six pass breakups to go along with three sacks. Thomas’s long reach allows him to gain the edge with his arms and disrupt the vision of the quarterback.
Thomas tallied a career-high seven tackles and broke up a pass in the win at No. 12 Michigan. He served as the fourth game captain against the Wolverines and was named the Spartan Defensive Attack Force Player of the Week for his performance in the victory.
Thomas started two consecutive seasons on the defensive line, racking up 27 straight starts in the process. The converted fullback had 30 career starts in 47 games played across his five years wearing green and white.
Thomas was rated as the 11th best defensive lineman at the 2016 Senior Bowl, and he had two tackles, one of which being for a loss, in the contest. Thomas will hope to improve his draft stock by putting in an impressive combine workout.
Heath recorded career highs with 31 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, as well recording two sacks in 12 starts for the Spartans at defensive tackle as a senior in 2015. Heath finished his career with 24 starts in 39 career games, totaling 60 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
Heath had a career high six tackles and a forced fumble in MSU’s win over No. 7 ranked Oregon in the second game of the season, and was the Spartan Defensive Player of the Week against Indiana after gaining four tackles and a sack.
Heath is a big-bodied line stuffer who can draw double teams and fill holes due to his size. He is projected as a late-round pick to undrafted by Kiper.
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