It’s been 732 days since Kenny Willekes had his name announced as 7th-round selection by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2020 NFL Draft. That’s how long it’s been since a Spartan was drafted into the NFL, the last pick of an 80-year streak at Michigan State.
MSU is locked in to restart its streak with running back Kenneth Walker III, at the very least, slated to be drafted this weekend. Two others, tight end Connor Heyward and wide receiver Jalen Nailor, could be selected too. The three of them participated in the NFL Scouting Combine and have gotten the most looks from NFL teams among the departed Spartans.
Here’s a look at what each of the three has to offer and a prediction of where they may land this weekend:
RB Kenneth Walker III
The outstander of them all, Walker is certain to be selected at some point in the draft.
His speed, vision, and home run ability terrorized defenses all season long, carrying Michigan State to an 11-2 record after transferring from Wake Forest.
The resume is there: 1,636 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns were among the tops in the country. He led the football subdivision in yards after contact and was the first winner of the Walter Camp National Player of the Year Award and the Doak Walker Award in school history.
Additionally, Walker fumbled just once in his collegiate career. Had he not gotten injured toward the end of the season, there’s a solid shot Walker would’ve been named a Heisman Trophy Finalist. Those last three words do wonders for a draft stock. Take Michigan’s defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, for example.
Where NFL teams have their wallowings stems from Walker’s lack of pass-catching and blocking ability. He caught just 19 passes across three seasons of college ball, 13 of which came in 2021. That, combined with something left to be desired as a blocker, kept Walker off the field in many third-down situations.
He currently projects as a two-down back in the NFL, which isn’t typically what teams itch for in a first-round selection. But, there’s room for improvement, and Walker made immense strides from Wake Forest to Michigan State. If he can take similar steps in some of his weaknesses, don’t be surprised if Walker ends up as the best back in the draft, even if he’s not the first one off the board.
Projection: Round 2
TE Connor Heyward
From running back to transfer portal to tight end, Heyward is no stranger to change over the last few years.
He joined MSU in 2017, mostly getting reps as a kick returner. Then, as a sophomore, Heyward broke out as Michigan State’s top running back in addition to being an exceptional kick returner.
The 2019 season was haunting for Heyward and his outlook took a 180-degree turn. He lost the starting running back job to Elijah Collins and after four games entered the transfer portal with the intention of leaving. But the hiring of Head Coach Mel Tucker following the season prompted Heyward to reconsider and he withdrew his name from the portal. The next season, he led MSU in carries and was second in rushing yards, albeit part of a horrendous rushing attack.
Heyward’s burly frame and lack of explosiveness necessary for the position initiated ponderings of whether running back was the right fit for him. He gave tight end a go and glided with success last fall.
The majority of his impact came as a pass-catcher where he used his sticky hands and strong body to bulldoze through defenders. His versatility is a plus too, containing the ability to line up in multiple positions. Heyward’s blocking ability needs some improvement, but flashed potential as far back as the very first play from scrimmage in 2021.
He also must improve his route running ability. Heyward’s work ethic is not in doubt, and as he embarks on more time learning the position, this should only trend upward.
If Heyward lands with a clever offensive mind that can utilize his versatility while also buying time for the growth of his raw talent, Heyward could be a day three win.
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Projection: Round 5-6
WR Jalen Nailor
They don’t call Jalen Nailor “Speedy” for no reason. It’s the backbone of his game and attribution for a successful career in East Lansing.
And while his 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine may have been slightly underwhelming (4.50, 20th among wide receivers), Nailor offers a high ceiling in a deep class of receivers.
Nailor missed four games of the regular season with a hand injury, resulting in season totals that don’t jump off the page. But his five-catch, 221 yards and three touchdown performance at Rutgers demonstrated his ability to blow the top off coverages and beat sleepy defenders with his straight-line speed. It was the fourth-most receiving yards in a single game by a receiver in school history.
However, Nailor, like Heyward, is still no polished wideout. He’s made some acrobatic plays at MSU, but is susceptible to drops, something that can boot you off the NFL field in a hurry. He also could improve his route tree and his thin frame doesn’t bode well.
The ceiling is what draws Nailor to the NFL. He has the potential to make it as a viable wide receiver, but strides still need to be made. No team will be in hot pursuit of Nailor, but he may be worth selecting as a flier.
Projection: Round 7 to undrafted free agent
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