(The Register-Guard) — Johnny Manziel and Michael Sam will manufacture most of the national headlines.

But there will be several interesting Oregon-related subplots unfolding at the NFL Scouting Combine beginning Saturday in Indianapolis.

Six former Ducks will be tested medically, physically and mentally during the annual pre-draft job interview attended by doctors, scouts, executives and coaches from all 32 NFL teams.

De'Anthony Thomas, who left the program after his up-and-down junior season, is expected to be the first Oregon player taken off the board. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock projects the dynamic running back and kick returner to be a fourth-round pick.

"I think De'Anthony Thomas, because of his speed and play-making ability, he is more valuable than six, eight years ago," Mayock said during a media teleconference on Tuesday. "He's a wild card. ... You have to have a plan in place for how you're going use him."

Mayock said the way the 5-9, 175-pound speedster was utilized at Oregon -- mostly returning kicks and getting the ball out in space on offense -- would serve Thomas well at the next level.

"Teams have to figure out: How do we manage to get him 8-to-10 touches a game so he is a real value?" Mayock said.

Thomas scored 46 touchdowns in 37 career games for the Ducks. He is on the short list of players capable of running the fastest 40 time at the combine this weekend.

However, the evolution of the spread offenses in the NFL has devalued the running back position at the top of the draft. Quarterbacks, offensive linemen, wide receivers and elite tight ends are targeted higher by more general managers every year.

"I think the biggest issue is it has become a pass-first league," Mayock said. "In the second, third, fourth round you can still get different flavors of running back."

The most physically imposing ex-Duck scheduled to be scrutinized is Colt Lyerla. The tight end, a junior who was in Thomas' recruiting class, will be bringing a lot of baggage with him to Lucas Oil Stadium.

"I want to see the tight end from Oregon and how he reacts to people," Mayock said when asked to name some players he was intrigued to study up close. "I've watched what little tape I had of him from 2012. He's a gifted, gifted kid, but he's got a bunch of off-field issues."

Lyerla left the program on Oct. 6 after being suspended by coach Mark Helfrich for the Colorado game.

On Dec. 27, while the Ducks were in San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl, Lyerla pled guilty to cocaine possession in Eugene as part of a deal that allowed him to leave the state to begin training for the draft.

Teams could be tempted to risk selecting Lyerla in the sixth or seventh round.

"There has to be a lot more homework done on this kid," Mayock said. "You're talking about a first- or second-round talent."

Josh Huff impressed scouts during Senior Bowl practices, but the 2014 draft is loaded with talented wide receivers.

"This is the deepest and best draft class I've seen in probably 10 years," Mayock said. "I had one GM tell me the other day that having a top-20 pick this year is very similar to having a top-10 pick last year. ... It's the best wide receiver draft I've seen in years."

On the defensive side, Taylor Hart (defensive lineman), Boseko Lokombo (linebacker) and Terrance Mitchell will also represent Oregon at the combine.

Mitchell, who started at cornerback opposite All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu for the past three seasons, appeared on the NFL Network on Tuesday to talk about his expectations for the combine.

"Coming out early, I felt like I achieved a lot at Oregon my three years (playing)," said Mitchell, who led the Ducks with five interceptions and 12 passes defended last season as a redshirt junior. "I started 38 games for them and I'm ready to take the next step."

Mayock does not have any of the Ducks in the top five of his respective position rankings. He does rank Oregon State's Scott Crichton as the No. 4 defensive end behind No. 1 overall prospect Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina), Kony Ealy (Missouri) and Dee Ford (Auburn).

"Scott Crichton reminds me a little bit of a poor man's Chris Long," said Mayock, who projects the Beavers' star pass rusher to be drafted late in the first round or early in the second round.

Two other Oregon State players, wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Rashaad Reynolds, will also be in Indianapolis.

As for the headliners, Mayock said the jury is still out on the former Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M as a franchise quarterback and the co-SEC defensive player of the year from Missouri, who recently announced publicly that he is gay.

"(Manziel) is different than any quarterback I've (evaluated) before," Mayock said. "I believe in the kid. I think he's going to be a top-10, if not a top-five pick, but you're going to have to live with some of those negative plays in addition to the positive ones. ...

"(Sam) is a tweener, and that's why people are having trouble with the evaluation. ... He's got linebacker size, but he's got the physical skill of a defensive end. I think he's a tough fit."

In addition to the combine, NFL teams will be able to evaluate Oregon's draft-eligible players at the program's pro timing day on March 13.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @rgduckfootball

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