Former Ducks await their fate.
With the inclusion of some unexpected early entry candidates, this week's NFL draft will be one of the more intriguing in recent memory involving former Oregon Ducks.
One year after only one UO player was selected, linebacker Casey Matthews, the record of six Ducks selected in one draft could be matched by the conclusion of Saturday's final round, or perhaps even exceeded. That would be thanks to the presence not only of graduated seniors such as linebacker Josh Kaddu and tight end David Paulson but also an intriguing trio of juniors: LaMichael James, Darron Thomas and Cliff Harris.
This year's NFL draft begins with the first round Thursday, and for the fourth straight season - each since 2008, when Jonathan Stewart went that high - it figures to pass without a player from Oregon being selected.
The second and third rounds are Friday, and by nearly all accounts, from draft analysis found online, James figures to hear his name called at some point.
At least two projections, including one by an NFL Network analyst, suggest James could be taken by the San Diego Chargers in the third round. But the website drafttek.com predicts that James will be Oregon's first second-round pick since T.J. Ward in 2010, going to the new-look Denver Broncos to play alongside quarterback Peyton Manning.
"Adding one of the most dynamic playmakers in all of college for the last three years is a huge upgrade," a drafttek.com analyst wrote of Oregon's all-time leading rusher, who posted three of the top four single-season rushing marks in school history before passing up his senior season to enter the draft.
James visited "four or five" teams in person earlier this month, he said, but for the most part has been in Eugene since the beginning of spring term at the university, where he is again enrolled in classes. He won't be able to report to his new team until after graduating in June, and so he's taking the draft as just one more gradual step toward his new career, rather than a dramatic turning point.
"I haven't even been thinking about it," James said Tuesday. "I'm just living day to day. I wouldn't want to get too overwhelmed, so I'm just chilling out."
James will return home to Texarkana, Texas, to spend draft weekend with family and close friends. He joked that his only preference is to be selected by a team in a state with low tax rates.
James said the realities of the professional game have been sobering, if not unexpected.
"Nobody genuinely cares about it; it's, can you go out there and make plays, and what can you do for the team," James said.
But he remains confident in his abilities to thrive at the next level, and not just in the third-down, all-purpose role some project, but as an every-down back.
"Everything I got back was always positive," James said of the feedback he received. "A lot of people are going to say what they want to say, but when I talk to the teams, they don't see any negatives. They see me run between the tackles. Football is football."
The final four rounds of the draft will be held Saturday, and it's then the biggest questions about this UO draft class will be answered. Just how much of a risk did Thomas take by passing up his senior season to enter the draft? And how far as Harris' stock fallen based on character concerns relating to his dismissal by the Ducks last fall, and reportedly spotty workouts for pro scouts?
Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a conference call with reporters last week of Harris that "at one point in time he looked like a first- or second-round pick. He gets pushed down (now) into the late rounds. He also was a dynamic punt returner, as well, during his career at Oregon. Two years ago he was one of the best return men in college football. He gets pushed way down into the day-three category."
In a previous conference call earlier this winter, Kiper also expressed doubts about the wisdom of Thomas' decision to turn pro this year. But while Kiper said in January that Thomas was "a late-round possibility at best," several projections suggest he will indeed at least achieve that best-case scenario.
One mock draft, by draftsite.com, pegs Thomas for the fifth round, to the Houston Texans, and drafttek.com projects him to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventh round.
Saturday also figures to feature the first name called from Oregon State, likely cornerback Brandon Hardin, despite the fact that a shoulder injury sidelined him for his entire senior season.
Also holding out hopes of being drafted out of OSU are receiver James Rodgers, who suffered a catastrophic knee injury in the fall of 2011, and linebacker Cameron Collins.
"The draft is very unpredictable," OSU coach Mike Riley said. "Don't count on anything. I've seen guys surprised (by going) early, but more often I've seen guys surprised by the fact they were drafted later than they thought they were going to be. There's no need to even think about it. Frankly, unless you're in the first round somewhere, you don't know, and no agent can tell you what it is, like they've been telling you for months to get you to be one of their clients."
Despite the knee injury that lingered into the 2011 season, Rodgers "will be impossible to cut" once he gets to training camp, Riley predicted, regardless of whether he's acquired through the draft or signed afterward as a free agent.
Bob Clark of The Register-Guard contributed to this report.
LOCAL NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS
Players from local schools, and where - by a consensus of online mock drafts - it's expected they may be selected in the upcoming NFL draft, including those who may end up as undrafted free agents
Player, School Pos Round
LaMichael James, UO RB 3rd
Josh Kaddu, UO LB 4th
Brandon Hardin, OSU CB 5th
Darron Thomas, UO QB 6th
Cliff Harris, UO CB 6th
David Paulson, UO TE 7th
Eddie Pleasant, UO S 7th
Mark Asper, UO OL FA
Darrion Weems, UO OL FA
Lavasier Tuinei, UO WR FA
James Rodgers, OSU WR FA
Cameron Collins, OSU LB FA
Aaron Pflugrad, ASU/Sheldon WR FA