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    NFL draft: Didinger’s 5 ‘sleepers’

    By Peter Mucha
    Inquirer Staff Writer
    It's an annual exercise for Ray Didinger, NFL Films producer, coauthor of The Eagles Encyclopedia, and admitted pro football draft junkie:
    Come up with five NFL draft "sleepers."
    On Saturday, Didinger presented this year's picks, during his midday show on WIP (610 AM) with cohost Glen Macnow.
    The Eagles might be wise to consider a few of these guys, Didinger said in a phone interview yesterday.
    Last year, he touted Stewart Bradley, who was taken by the Eagles in Round 3 and might be the starting middle linebacker this season.
    You probably won't hear the names of any of Didinger's selections on April 26, when the NFL draft's first two rounds are held.
    "To me, a sleeper is anybody who will be drafted in the third round or lower," Didinger said.
    Generally, he looks for exceptions that prove a different rule: That heart, guts and guile sometimes matter more than height, heft and speed.
    It's a hunt for buried treasure that takes a lot of work, he said. "I watch college football and I have my legal tablet with me. ... so at the end of the year I have a lot of notes."
    He also gathers clues by watching post-season all-star games and the NFL Combines, where teams measure size, speed, strength, leaping ability and more.
    "Then I talk to a lot of people," said the former Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist, whose most recent book is a collection of his writings called One Last Read.
    "The things that I'm looking for are football intelligence ... how hard does the good player play, how well does he play in big games, and how well does he play in the fourth quarter," Didinger said.
    On-field performance is the best measure of a man.
    "It's not what he did in a domed stadium in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts running in a straight line," Didinger says. "... What could be less meaningful than a 40-yard dash for a defensive tackle?"
    Other Didinger sleeper picks who seem to have paid off: 1998 seventh rounder Pat Tillman, who was a solid safety for Arizona before his death serving in the Army in Afghanistan; 2005 fourth-rounder Darren Sproles, fifth in kickoff returns last season for San Diego; and 1998 fourth-rounder Tim Dwight, who returned a kickoff for an Atlanta touchdown in the 1999 Super Bowl.
    As the Tillman example shows, Didinger usually mixes in some long shots, projecting smart picks for the fourth and later rounds, not just the third.
    Here are his five sleepers for 2008. All the opinions expressed are Didinger's.
    Wide receiver Jordy Nelson, Kansas State, 6-foot-3, 217 pounds, timed at 4.54 in the 40-yard dash. Nelson is likely to be available in the third round because his 40 time is "considered a step slow," Didinger says, adding that teams want a 4.4 or below. But Nelson is "one of these guys who plays faster than he times" because of his size, smooth breaks and "great intelligence and feel for the game." Despite double coverage and facing different defensive schemes every week, Nelson still had 122 catches. Because his size and excellent route-running could make him a nice Red Zone target, "I would love to see the Eagles get him in the third round," Didinger said.
    Fullback Jacob Hester, LSU, 5-11, 226 pounds, ran the 40 in 4.62. Hester's expected to be a fourth-rounder, despite rushing for over 1,100 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns for the national champion Tigers, Didinger said. The knocks are he's not quite big enough, not fast enough. But "he plays with great effort and great pride" and played on all special teams at LSU, making him "a solid all-around player who, I think, is real versatile," Didinger said. Hester (no relation to Chicago return sensation Devin Hester) blocks well for his size, showing he can pick up a blitz, and might fit in well with the Eagles, because "he's a real sure-handed receiver," Didinger said, adding, "I really have a feeling about this guy." He wouldn't be surprised if "eight years from now this guy's still going to be playing in the league."
    Safety Corey Lynch, Appalachian State, 6-foot, 205 pounds, 4.52. Projected as a fifth rounder despite making 111 tackles for a team that upset Michigan and won the national 1-AA title over Delaware. But he, too, is perceived as "a step slow." But he can play man to man coverage, can blitz, and even blocked three kicks, including a field goal in the Michigan game. During games he even seemed to reposition teammates. "It looks to me likes he was the leader of that defense," Didinger said. Plays free safety or strong safety. On the Eagles, he'd have a shot to succeed Brian Dawkins, but at the very least could help on special teams.
    Defensive end Brian Johnston, Gardner-Webb College, 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, 4.9 in the 40. Projected as a sixth-rounder because he's from a small school. But he was twice defensive player of the year in the Big South, and played well in the Hula Bowl, getting six tackles and two sacks, while forcing a fumble against Division One players. "Every year, you just see him getting better and better," Didinger said. Each draft seems to have a couple of small-college linemen who go low but do well, and Johnston might be the next one to join that group, he says. The Eagles, however, probably don't see a big need at defensive end, since last year's second-round pick Victor Abiamiri and off-season acquisition Chris Clemons are expected to join a cast that already includes Trent Cole and Juqua Thomas.
    Running back/receiver/returner/quarterback/holder Jayson Foster, Georgia Southern, 5-9, 170 pounds, 4.32 time in the 40. Shhh. Don't tell anybody. This guy's name doesn't even show up in a lot of draft books, Didinger said. But ... "to me, he has the potential to be the most exciting player out of the bunch." Didinger envisions this undersized but "lightning-fast" athlete as "a wonderful wild card player." As a quarterback - yes, quarterback - last season, he rushed for 1,844 yards and 24 touchdowns. OK, he's not going to be an NFL QB, but he's "electrifying," with "tremendous acceleration," and on one 60-yard touchdown run made everyone miss so badly he was hardly touched, Didinger said. Note to the Eagles: Foster was also a threat as a place holder, because he'd run with the ball or throw it. So if used creatively at receiver and maybe running back, as well on as special teams, he could be a dandy asset. If people aren't impressed that he also won the Walter Payton Award as the nation's best small-college player, recall a few other winners: Steve McNair, Tony Romo and the Eagles' Brian Westbrook.

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