EAST LANSING, Mich. — NFL coaching staffs have a finite amount of time with which to get their incoming rookies ready for the season. The schedule usually includes a three-day rookie mini-camp, a three-day team mini-camp, 10 OTA dates and a couple weeks of training camp before the preseason begins. That’s it.
Part of the draft process includes deciphering how long a prospect will need before he is ready to play: Does he have the skills and experience to pick everything up quickly? Or was his college system so far removed from the NFL’s approach that he’ll be starting from scratch?
The buzz around Michigan State’s program right now covers the former. Not every recent Spartans draft pick has been an instant home run, but because of how Michigan State's program is run, many of their prospects are viewed as being relatively “NFL ready.” It is happening with QB Connor Cook. It’s happening with OT Jack Conklin. And it will continue to happen so long as Michigan State produces a moderate level of draft success each year.
“Basically, they run the practices like an NFL team,” said 2014 draft pick Darqueze Dennard, now a member of the Bengals. “They run the meetings like it—if you’re late, you get punished. It’s things like that. It’s very, very similar to the NFL.”
Oddly enough, the Spartans’ highest draft picks of late (Dennard at No. 24 and fellow cornerback Trae Waynes at No. 11 by the Vikings last year) have found some of the toughest sledding. Dennard landed among a deep Cincinnati DB depth chart, then suffered a season-ending injury in Week 11 of the 2015 season, while Waynes made just one start as a rookie and struggled to earn playing time.
Michigan State’s defensive approach asks its cornerbacks to play an extremely physical style of pass coverage. In fact, Dennard told SI prior to the 2014 draft that adjusting to the NFL’s tight illegal contact and pass interference rules could make for a tough go of it early.
“Defensive back and quarterback,” Dennard said, “...are the two positions [where the college-to-NFL transition is] probably hardest.”
Cook, whose 39 starts match Kirk Cousins's school record among quarterbacks, may not have a chance to ease his way in, should he land with a team in need of an immediate starter.
There are reasons why Cook tends to land behind Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Paxton Lynch when this year’s QB class is discussed, with his accuracy issues and the mysterious character concerns leading the list.
But whereas the NFL still must wonder if Goff, for example, can survive outside of a shotgun set, Cook believes he is ready to roll.
“I’ve worked in an NFL system, I’ve dealt with snaps from under center, I've dealt with pro-style concepts, I've dealt with scanning the whole field, changing plays, changing protections, knowing what protections are, ID’ing the MIKE (middle linebacker),” said Cook, who has been working with former Michigan State player and longtime NFL coach Jimmy Raye as part of his draft prep. “He was teaching us his playbook when he was in the NFL and it was very similar concepts, terminology, protections, defensive terminology.”
As for OT Conklin, offensive linemen taken in the top 20 are often are expected to be in the starting lineup for Week 1, and that's where Conklin may land. His 38 starts as part of the Spartans’ pro-style attack may be a tipping point in his favor when those difficult draft decisions come.
“I think it starts over for all linemen to a point [when they are rookies],” Conklin said. “But what I’ve started to learn from the combine and just different interviews is really with our pro-style offense that we run, a lot of the stuff they put up on the board ... maybe it's not the same terms, but it’s the same stuff that we run.
“A lot of it is almost the exact same scheme that we ran, so it’s at least something that’s fresh in your mind, something you know rather than coming from a spread team walking into a completely new place and completely new formations.”
For all the studying and scouting the NFL does on its prospects, the draft still boils down to educated guesswork. Look no further than former Spartan Le’Veon Bell slipping into Round 2 or even at the Bears finding Jeremy Langford in Round 4.
Teams simply hope they can find players capable of making the leap. They are increasingly buying in to what Mark Dantonio and his Michigan State staff are doing.
“A team that runs the ball well and can stop the ball on defense is going to win the game,” Conklin said. “The NFL is predominantly pro-style, so a lot of teams are looking at guys from those programs.”
Other notes and thoughts from Michigan State's pro day:
Connor Cook airs it out
The Michigan State QB injured his shoulder in mid-November and never made it back to 100% before the end of the college season. He, with the help of QB guru George Whitfield, attempted to show the 50-plus NFL personnel folks in attendance Wednesday that he is there now.
Cook went through an extensive throwing session, one which lasted beyond the 20 minutes allotted for quarterbacks and wide receivers.
“We added a couple more rounds because originally there weren’t many deep balls,” Cook said, “and we heard back [from NFL reps] saying, ‘Hey, can Cook drive it? Can he throw some deep balls?’ So we went and added a couple more rounds just to showcase that, to let them know that my shoulder's good, my shoulder's healthy and I can still spin it. In fact, I can spin it better than before I hurt it.”
The workout likely did not produce many surprises for those who had studied Cook’s game. With his arm back in shape, Cook delivered several pinpoint deep balls and showed impressive zip on his throws to the sideline. He also misfired on a handful of throws—a couple of times, badly—despite there being no defense on the field.
Still, if the main goal was to show that his arm had healed, then mission accomplished.
Shilique Calhoun’s transition
The 6’ 4”, 251-pound Calhoun took part (as expected) in the 20-minute set for defensive linemen, but then added another 15 minutes or so to his afternoon as 49ers linebackers coach Jason Tarver put him through LB drills. That session took place as the Michigan State offensive linemen were on the field. Tarver, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, Colts defensive line coach Gary Emanuel and Jets outside linebackers coach Mark Collins were among the coaches who kept their eyes on Calhoun.
Calhoun, who played defensive end for the Spartans, explained that he wanted to show his progress working from a two-point stance, as he would have to should his next team move him to linebacker. “It’s not unnatural,” he said, “I just didn’t have much chance to do it [at Michigan State].”
One NFL assistant at pro day said that Calhoun was doing well learning the intricacies of playing linebacker, noting that the big challenge is in refining his footwork so he can burst out of his stance.
Aaron Burbridge solidifies his spot
Cook’s favorite target in the passing game put on quite a display Wednesday, showing off his hands while plucking several receptions during drills. More than once, the 6' 0” wide receiver managed to extend his arms, make a grab and stay in stride. He also tiptoed along the sidelines for a couple of impressive catches.
If there was any doubt about his draft standing, it should be gone now. Coming off an 85-catch, 1,250-yard season, Burbridge has a chance to sneak into Day 2 (Rounds 2-3) and if he doesn't, he should be gone well before the midpoint of Day 3.
“He’s got great hands, plays real physical,” said Dennard, his former teammate. “He'll be a good pro.”
This is unofficial, but I clocked Burbridge at 4.45 in his second 40-yard dash attempt, too. (Another reporter alongside me had him at 4.52.) Even if the official comes in closer to that latter number, it would be an improvement off Burbridge’s 4.56 combine time, which was viewed as relatively strong given his style of play.