JUDGE: Unsigned stars of NFL Europe

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Clark Judge

You want to know where signs next. Me? I want to find out who makes the next run at Matthew Hatchette. Yes, that Matthew Hatchette. The former Minnesota wide receiver didn't play anywhere last year, but he lit up NFL Europe this spring and is standing by the phone awaiting a call. My guess is he doesn't wait long. Hatchette is one of the best and brightest of NFL Europe's unallocated players — which means he's an unrestricted free agent you can and should sign. Sure, he's older than most, but he's also more productive. And he can help someone as a fourth or fifth pass catcher. I mention Hatchette because the six teams of NFL Europe — which concludes its season with Saturday's World Bowl XI — are a source of free-agent help for NFL clubs that aren't interested in, say, a or but are eager to pad their rosters for next month's training camps. Granted, most of the league's players have NFL affiliations, but some, including Hatchette, belong to no one and are eligible to sign with the first bidder. And it is they whom NFL scouts dissected the past few weeks as they rushed to identify the NFL Europe's most attractive free agents. So who are these guys? I wondered the same thing. So I contacted an NFC club and asked for its list of unallocated NFL Europe players it would like most to sign. This is what I found: Matthew Hatchette, WR, Amsterdam: The name should sound familiar. Hatchette was a solid backup receiver at Minnesota who fizzled with the New York , then couldn't make it with Oakland a year later and was forced to sit out the 2002 season. He has good size (6 feet 3, 200 pounds), good hands and sneaky speed. He's a good route runner. He's tough. And he has age, just turning 29 last month. "He's a good player," said one NFL personnel director. "The only question is consistency. Can the guy get open?" He did this spring, leading NFL Europe with a club-record 61 catches — including seven for touchdowns — and 790 yards. Nobody else had more than 45 receptions or 678 yards. Of course, nobody else passed like Amsterdam, either, with the Admirals producing a league-high 43.7 passes a game. They scored at least 20 points in six of their last seven starts, including a 51-43 defeat of Berlin. Credit Hatchette for taking advantage of a good situation: He had four of the league's eight 100-yard receiving games. He also set a league record with a 101-yard punt return for a touchdown. It was his only attempt of the year and had him recognized as the league's Special Teams Player of the Week. Phil Stambaugh, QB, Berlin: The former Lehigh standout ranked second in passer rating (93.6) and third in passing yards (1,759), but why stop there? He had more touchdown passes (13) than everyone but Scotland's , his completion percentage of 66.5 was second to none and he threw the longest touchdown pass (80 yards) of the NFL Europe season. So what's not to like about the guy? "Arm strength," said one scout. "He's more of a timing passer. He's not , someone who can flush the pocket and throw a dart. He's or ." And that's not bad. Both quarterbacked the to the NFC championship game after starter was injured last year. Stambaugh has good size (6-3, 220), is smart, can move in the pocket and, most important, is accurate — with a touchdown-to-interception ratio better than 2:1. Jonas Lewis, RB, Frankfurt: The former San Francisco back was the league's third-leading rusher with 669 yards (4.2 average) and tied Scotland's Ken Simonton for the most rushing TDs with eight. At 5-9, 210, Lewis is compact, but he runs with power, has good balance and can break tackles. Plus, he has above-average hands and was an established special teams player with the . The downside: He lacks breakaway speed, though you'd never know it after watching him puncture Berlin for 137 yards rushing and three TDs earlier this year. It was one of two 100-yard games for Lewis. "He can run away from these linebackers," said one scout, "but when you get to the NFL it's a different story, and you can't make as many yards." Big deal. Lewis is perfect as a backup who can contribute as a special-teams standout. Dwayne Ledford,OT, Rhein: He played left tackle for the Fire, but scouts consider him more as a center or guard. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Ledford attractive to the NFL. He's athletic, and he's versatile — a former defensive lineman who made the switch to offensive tackle his senior year at East Carolina. At 6 feet 4, 300 pounds, he's a little undersized to be considered a starting tackle, but he demonstrated this spring he can play the position in a pinch. "He's a very good technician," said one NFL scout, "and he has good balance. But he lacks consistency against bigger opponents who try to bull-rush him." And that's been a problem, keeping Ledford from sticking with any of the four NFL clubs who signed him. Jonathan Brown, DE, Amsterdam: A former third-round draft pick of Green Bay (1998), Brown has the best credentials of this bunch. When he left the University of Tennessee, his 25 sacks were third in school history behind only Reggie White (32) and (28). But there's always been something missing to his game, and it may stem from foot problems stemming from a 1997 surgery. "There's not enough quickness there to allow him to be an above-average pass rusher in the NFL," said an AFC scout. Maybe not. But he was above average in NFL Europe, with his 6.5 sacks tying for fourth-best in the league. Brown can play the run as well as the pass and has the size (6-3, 270) you're looking for at this position. "I could see him being a designated pass rusher if he got with the right team," said our scout. Daryon Brutley, CB, Berlin: A free-agent casualty with Buffalo last year, Brutley has plenty of qualities to make him a consideration at this position: There's decent size (5-11, 187), adequate speed and solid instincts. Plus, Brutley is smooth when he backpedals and turns, and he closes well on receivers. Rewind the videotape to this season, and you won't find anyone running by the guy. "You always find him doing something in a game," said one scout. "He always flashed." But he doesn't flash with enough consistency to suit some observers, plus he doesn't have the top-end speed that scouts love. Still, he can fill the bottom of someone's roster — particularly with the special-teams experience he gained at Northern Iowa and with the Thunder. Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address:
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