Jeff Lockie: No interceptions for Mariota
No. 2 Oregon could be in the process of producing the program’s greatest ever NFL Draft class.
That’s both good news and bad news for the Ducks.
Good because it would pull the Ducks out of a pattern of producing wins but few high-end NFL prospects.
Bad because it would lead to a gutting of the starting lineup unlike anything the program has ever experienced.
Five underclassmen have been projected as draft picks in 2014. Leading that list are redshirt sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota and junior running back De’Anthony Thomas.
The Ducks (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) are a few wins away from returning to the Bowl Championship Series title game, three seasons after their first and only appearance following the 2010 season.
The 2010 roster, despite a historical run that ended with a loss to Auburn, produced just one NFL Draft pick the following spring.
Granted, several other starters from that team were drafted in later years and more than half of the 22 starters have been on NFL rosters.
Still, Oregon’s run of four consecutive BCS bowl game appearances has produced a modest 12 draft pick from 2011 to 2013.
Compare that to No. 1 Alabama, which has had 27 picks during that same time span. No. 3 Florida State has had 20. Even USC, a team Oregon dominated for much of the past four seasons, has produced 22 draft picks since 2010.
The Ducks record for draft picks produced in a single year is six, accomplished in 2009 and 2002.
That record could fall next April.
NFLDraftScout.com projects Oregon to produce up to 10 draft picks, including the five underclassmen.
Mariota (first-round), junior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (first), junior center Hroniss Grasu (second or third), Thomas (third) and junior tight end Colt Lyerla are the underclassmen who could be tempted to leave early.
Lyerla, once considered a possible first or second rounder, left the team earlier this month and further hurt his draft chances by being arrested for possession of cocaine last week. Still, he could be talented enough for a team to take a chance on in the later rounds.
Oregon seniors listed as potential draft picks are defensive end Taylor Hart (second to third), linebacker Boseko Lokombo (fourth to fifth), wide receiver Josh Huff (fourth to fifth), safety Avery Patterson (sixth to seventh) and safety Brian Jackson (seventh).
Others who have a shot at getting drafted are defensive linemen Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli.
Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, said he would be surprised if Mariota left early given his youth. He turns 20 on Wednesday.
But the pressure to leave could be strong. Many draft prognosticators, including Rang, project Mariota as a top-five pick.
“If Oregon wins a championship or he wins the Heisman, it could be one of those storybook endings for him,” Rang said.
Rang said Mariota is easily the most skilled passer Oregon has produced since Joey Harrington, the third-overall pick in 2002.
“Everything I’m hearing is that the scouts are starting to eat him up,” he said. “The skillset is obvious. He looks like (San Francisco’s Colin) Kaepernick out there. Chip Kelly’s offense, at least parts of it, is working in the NFL.”
Thomas presents another interesting case. An undersized running back at 5-9, 170 pounds, Thomas might be better suited to play wide receiver in the NFL.
He’s spent time at the position while at Oregon. The question is how much does Thomas, at his size, want to return to Oregon to absorb more punishment for free? He’s missed three games this season with an ankle injury.
“To me, if you’re a running back and you’ve already show on tape that you are a stud, and he has, I think you have to consider coming out,” Rang said.
But as what?
“I personally like him best as a receiver,” Rang said. “To me, he’s just like [Seattle’s] Percy Harvin, guys like that. You can do just about anything you want with him.”
Ekpre-Olomu is considered to be a first-round talent and is tabbed as being the third best cornerback in the 2014 draft, should he leave early.
Grasu probably won’t be a first-round pick but he could go high enough to entice him to leave early.
Rang said interior linemen usually don’t leave school early, choosing to stay in order to add bulk and strength.
But Rang pointed out that recent centers taken high were underclassmen and Grasu certainly will be attractive to NFL teams, especially those running zone-read systems.
Grasu, Rang said, gets to the second level well and is athletic enough to pull on tosses from the center position.
“There’s only so many guys who can do that,” Rang said.
Compelling reasons exist for Mariota, Grasu, Ekpre-Olomu and Thomas to follow Lyerla into the NFL Draft.
Should a couple of them do just that, it would result in an unprecedented loss of talent in one year for the Oregon Ducks.