After a memorable NFL draft for Oregon last week, signs point to the Ducks having another prominent class in 2014, including several stars who could have the chance to leave school early.
Several 2014 projections released in the wake of last week's draft include prominent underclassmen Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, De'Anthony Thomas, Colt Lyerla and even quarterback Marcus Mariota, who will be draft-eligible following the 2013 season, his third year out of high school.
The underclassmen would have the chance to join a group of senior Oregon prospects such as receiver Josh Huff, linebacker Boseko Lokombo and defensive lineman Taylor Hart. Last week, Dion Jordan became Oregon's fifth top-five pick all-time, and the first on defense, and Kyle Long gave the Ducks two first-rounders for just the second time ever.
Ekpre-Olomu, who had a breakout 2012 in which he was a third-team Associated Press All-American, is the UO underclassmen most widely regarded to be a top prospect in the 2014 NFL draft. A mock draft released Tuesday by Chris Burke of SI.com lists Ekpre-Olomu as the No. 19 pick in the first round, and Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News wrote Tuesday that Ekpre-Olomu is the No. 5 draft prospect for 2014 from the Pac-12, regardless of class.
"The lockdown corner is a better prospect than Washington's Desmond Trufant, who went No. 22 last week," Wilner wrote.
Burke's mock draft did not include Thomas, but the all-purpose back was No. 7 on Wilner's list of top Pac-12 prospects. BigLead.com had Thomas at No. 15 on a list of top 2014 prospects nationally, Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com has him at No. 31 overall and Athlon Sports listed him at No. 32.
Thomas drew several comparisons to former West Virginia all-purpose player Tavon Austin, another undersized burner who went No. 8 to the St. Louis Rams last week. Brugler wrote that Thomas "isn't nearly as polished yet" in comparison to Austin, however.
"He won't ever be a full-time running back in the NFL so landing in the first round might be a reach," Athlon Sports wrote, "but no player in the nation is more of a big-play threat than The Black Mamba. ... Used in the right role — think Darren Sproles — his home run ability will play on Sundays for years."
Burke's mock draft for SI.com had Lyerla going with the No. 27 pick — to the Seattle Seahawks — and the UO tight end also was mentioned on the lists from Brugler and Athlon Sports. Both Burke and Brugler noted Lyerla's relatively meager statistical production last fall — just 25 catches — but agreed that his athleticism will play well in the NFL.
Interviewed this spring, Lyerla said he needed to see how 2013 went before determining his status for the 2014 draft. But some UO players have said in interviews they believe that Lyerla will bypass his senior season.
The UO underclassman about whom there is the most disagreement was Mariota. BigLead.com listed him at No. 5 on a 2014 mock draft, and Pete Prisco of CBS-Sports.com wrote that Mariota's dual-threat abilities would intrigue NFL teams moving to that style.
Brugler and Burke, meanwhile, didn't even list the Oregon quarterback. And Wilner, who has covered the conference for years, wrote that it was "hard to see " Mariota — or UCLA's redshirt sophomore quarterback, Brett Hundley — leaving after the 2013 season.
Wilner also suggested UO junior center Hroniss Grasu could have the chance to consider leaving early with a strong 2013 season. Cornerback Terrance Mitchell and right tackle Jake Fisher also will be juniors in 2013 with the talent to possibly consider an early entry into the 2014 draft, some believe.
In the modern era, Oregon has had eight early entries into the draft, beginning with Kenny Wheaton in 1996. The only year the Ducks had more than one was 2003, when running back Onterrio Smith and tight end George Wrighster made the jump, but based on recent projections, 2014 might become the new milestone year for UO underclassmen entering the NFL draft.