In preparation for the 2013 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
OREGON STATE BEAVERS
NFL Draft picks the past five years: 14
2012 NFL Draft picks: One -- DB Brandon Hardin (Third Round, No. 79 overall).
Struggling through injuries and fielding one of the country's youngest teams, the Oregon State Beavers looked at times last season like the laughing stock they were in the 80s and 90s and finished 3-9 -- the worst record in Corvalis since 1996.
While the win-total and 2012 NFL draft contributions leave a lot to be desired, head coach Mike Riley and his staff used the tough year to season a number of very intriguing young prospects, not the least of which is redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion and a pair of young pass rushers in true sophomores Scott Crichton (74 tackles, 14.5 TFL, six sacks, school record six forced fumbles) and Dylan Wynn (44 tackles, 5.5 TFL, five fumble recoveries).
A tough non-conference schedule (which includes games against Wisconsin and at BYU) means that improvement this season could be relatively slight. Still, Riley has made a career out of leading teams to big upsets and the growing pains endured a season ago should translate into more victories (and likely more NFL draft picks) in 2012 for the Beavers.
Top-five prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft
With the tandem of Brandon Hardin (now competing to be the Chicago Bears' starting strong safety) and Poyer (pictured above) slated to be Oregon State's starters, the Beavers had hoped to feature the Pac-12's most talented cornerback duo in 2012. In what turned out to be a harbinger of the Beavers' ill-fortuned season, however, Hardin broke his shoulder during camp last August and missed the entire campaign, thrusting Poyer into the spotlight. To Poyer's credit, he stepped up his level of play considerably, emerging in just his second season at cornerback (previously was a reserve safety) to earn Second Team Pac-12 honors with career-highs in tackles (57), passes broken up (12) and interceptions (four), including one the second interception of his career for a touchdown. Half of Poyer's six career interceptions came against NFL-caliber quarterbacks, as he picked off Brock Osweiler twice last year and Matt Barkley in OSU's stunning 36-7 demolition of the Trojans in 2010. Not only did Poyer demonstrate the confidence and athleticism necessary to handle the one on one responsibilities expected of cornerbacks in OSU's blitz-heavy scheme, he continued in his role as the Beavers' primary returner, averaging a gaudy 14.1 yards per return on punts (including an 85-yard touchdown vs. UCLA) and carrying a 25.9 career average on kick returns. Athletic, physical and possessing the ball skills to make opposing quarterbacks pay for testing him, Poyer currently ranks fourth among senior cornerbacks on NFLDraftScout.com's 2013 board. To earn this lofty ranking, however, Poyer will not have to prove that his junior season was no fluke but also that he has the high character NFL teams are looking for as he was arrested following an alleged bar fight in May.
2. WR Markus Wheaton (6-0, 178)
Used in much the same way as the Beavers featured former star James Rodgers throughout his long, distinguished career, Wheaton has developed into one of the conference's most versatile and underrated weapons over the last two seasons. Eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark in all-purpose yardage for the second consecutive year, Wheaton caught a career-high 73 passes for 986 yards in 2011, earning honorable mention all-conference honors and looks poised to significantly improve upon those numbers this season. Always known for his straight-line speed, Wheaton proved to be an improved route-runner last season and demonstrated better make-you-miss agility than he'd previously shown. A willing receiver over the middle with the toughness to handle running with the ball on the fly-sweep, Wheaton isn't just a track athlete in football pads. With Rodgers, the school's all-time leader with 222 career receptions and generally reliable pass-catching tight end, Joe Halahuni, having exhausted their eligibility, Wheaton should see even more attention this season as Mannion's clear top target. Don't be surprised if Wheaton proves this season to be one of the Pac-12's most productive receivers -- which is saying something considering the talent at this position in the conference -- and establishes himself as a legitmate middle round NFL prospect.
3. ILB Feti Unga (6-1, 243)
Though Oregon State has a long ways to go before anyone would confuse their production of NFL linebackers with that of Penn State or Southern Cal, the Beavers have consistently churned out talented tacklers. Unga, who ranked among conference leaders with 67 tackles prior to suffering a sprained knee on the first play against BYU and missing the next three games, has the size, strength and bloodlines to join the seven OSU linebackers drafted into the NFL since 2000. Related to four current or former NFL players, including current Chicago Bears' running back Harvey Unga and former Philadelphia Eagles' receiver Reno Mahe, Feti Unga (pronounced fed-TEE OONG-uh) initially signed with the Beavers in 2006 but traveled to Chile as part of a two-year LDS mission. Upon his return Unga quickly established himself as a standout special teams' performer (second leading tackler in 2009) and served as a key backup as a sophomore before winning the starting inside linebacker role in 2011. An aggressive and physical tone-setter in the middle, Unga paced the Beavers with a career-high 14 tackles against UCLA and nearly matched that total in the Civil War against the speedy Oregon Ducks (13 tackles). To earn a draftable grade, Unga will, of course, have to remain healthy in 2012 and show improvement in pass coverage. His size, ability to take on and shed blocks at the point of attack and reliable, physical hitting, however, make him one of the more intriguing "thumpers" of a potentially strong 2013 class at inside linebacker.
The decision to go with the inexperienced Mannion over incumbent starter Ryan Katz was a decision that many fans struggled with as Riley's team struggled in 2011. As the season went on, however, the confidence Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf showed in Mannion started to pay off with the young passer throwing completing 64.5% of his passes for 3,328 yards and a respectable (considering his inexperience) 16-18 touchdown to interception ratio. While the Beavers have perhaps been better known for producing defensive backs and linebackers throughout Riley's 11-year tenure, he's quietly been very successful in churning out NFL quarterbacks, including Derek Anderson, Matt Moore and Sean Canfield. Like Canfield, who is now a member of the New Orleans Saints, Mannion looks the part but doesn't appear to possess the type of arm strength to strike the fear into opponents at this time. Also like Canfield, however, Mannion flashed the anticipation, touch and accuracy, overall, to be successful. Mannion earned Freshman All-American honors after the 2011 season but may see his numbers fall in 2012 as the Beavers will hope to feature a more balanced attack. As only a redshirt sophomore, he's far from NFL-ready, but make no mistake that if he continues to make the strides quarterbacks have generally made in their second and third seasons under Riley, the Beavers could once again be featuring a pro caliber signal-caller.
5. OL Michael Philipp (6-3, 308)*
The most important step Oregon State will have to make if they are to improve in 2012 will be adding consistency up front. Part of the reason why young quarterback Sean Mannion's numbers were so impressive a year ago was that the team was often behind and forced to pass the ball often just to stay competitive. If the team can rely on the return of Philipp, not only the most experienced offensive lineman but their most battle-tested player at any position (22 career starts), they'll go a long way towards accomplishing their goals. Philipp signed with OSU as a highly regarded prep prospect and looked like he deserved every bit of his hype when he won the starting left tackle as a true freshman and earned Freshman All-American honors in starting all 13 games. Though he was recognized as a Second Team all-conference winner despite only starting nine games due to injuries (broken nose, sprained ankles) as a sophomore, those close to the program thought his play tailed off from his impressive freshman season. Nonetheless, the Beavers were counting on Philipp to return to form in 2011. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury that led to his undergoing surgery to remove loose cartilage and missing the entire season. Despite being built more like an NFL guard than a tackle, Phillip has demonstrated an intriguing blend of mobility and flexibility. If healthy, he's expected to lock down one of the two tackle positions for the Beavers this year. Philipp, now a redshirt junior, isn't as reliable as senior Colin Kelly but is the more physically talented of the two and therefore a potentially more interesting pro prospect. Regardless of where he ultimately lines up for the Beavers, Philipp has scouts' attention -- he just needs to make sure that the attention comes for the right reasons again, like it did back in 2009...
OT Colin Kelly (6-4, 295)
WR Jordan Bishop (6-3, 205)
TE Colby Prince (6-4, 260)
OL Josh Andrews (6-2, 295)*
CB Rashaad Reynolds (5-10, 185)*
For all of NFLDraftScout.com's team by team previews of the top prospects to watch in the 2012 season in preparation for the 2013 NFL draft, click here.
Photo credit: US Presswire