The Washington Times - April 21, 2009, 06:53PM

Everyone likes to make a big deal out of the NFL Draft – which is as huge a non-event as there is on the sporting calendar each year.

Really, the NFL deserves a lot of credit for turning a series of name announcements into a two-day fiesta. The only league that comes close is the NBA, which thanks to its decadence and one-night-only format is probably the most enjoyable draft to watch.

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But that’s in the middle of the week in June, and far fewer folks carve out time for as substantial a party for the NBA Draft than the NFL Draft.

It’s always hard for me to get too excited, for several reasons. One, covering Maryland’s spring game every year when the first round is unfolding means there are more pressing things to pay attention to.

Two, on day two, there is usually a lacrosse game to keep my mind occupied.

Three, I’m one of “those people” who pays much closer attention to fantasy football implications than how anything benefits a real franchise.

And finally, because I follow one team from start to finish each fall, it’s hard to get a good sense of just how good players are from other parts of the country.

Last season, for instance, I covered 13 Maryland games and three Navy games. I saw Wake Forest twice and 15 other teams once. That makes for getting a good look at 18 teams.

And it is those 18 teams that feed into this list: The seven best players in the draft that I saw in person last year. Fans of the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and the Pac-10, please hold back your e-mails.

This is not a ranking of their pro potential, nor in the order in which they’ll go. It’s merely a listing of seven guys who played well in a game I covered. There isn’t much pretense here, since it’s not like any film was broken down to come up with this list.

It’s a plain old eyeball test for guys with a chance to play in the pros.

1. DE Everette Brown, Florida State: Brown was simply breathtaking when the Seminoles routed Maryland, almost single-handedly tossing aside the Terps’ offensive line to become well-acquainted with Chris Turner before the night was through. It was about the same as the night Chris Long enjoyed at Byrd Stadium a year earlier for Virginia, and that was a maestro performance as well.

2. LB Clint Sintim, Virginia: While it’s almost too easy to poke fun at Lord Groh of Hooville, the man knows linebackers. And after watching Sintim help control the Maryland offense back in October, it was easy to believe Groh when he said Sintim is among the best linebackers he’s ever coached. Clearly, Sintim is far better suited for a 3-4 as an outside backer, but that night was one of many all season that demonstrated how good he will be in the long-term.

3. LB Aaron Curry, Wake Forest. Yes, Curry’s supposed to go in the top three – if not at the very top – of the draft. So why is he at No. 3 here? Well, remember, this happened to come from just a two-game sampling. The Demon Deacons collectively didn’t look very good at Byrd, but Curry was the guy most easily remembered from that defense. It’s easy to see why he’s viewed as a sure thing; his college career suggests an incredibly high level of reliability.

4. T Eugene Monroe, Virginia. To be honest, I forgot just how good Monroe was that night in Charlottesville. Then the mental highlight reel came back – Cedric Peerman running unimpeded to the left side, over and over and over. That was Monroe’s doing, and the mammoth tackle figures to be well-compensated for his skills in the near future.

5. DT B.J. Raji, Boston College. Other than maybe center, there might not be a position that’s a difficult to fully appreciate while trying to watch a full game than defensive tackle. It wasn’t that Raji made a ton of tackles or pressured the quarterback, it’s that he and Ron Brace rendered Maryland one-dimensional in the regular season finale. The Terps rather wisely abandoned the run that day, since no one was making it through the wall of girth Raji and Brace presented.

6. WR Darrius Heyward-Bey. It’s hard to be fair to a guy you’ve seen a dozen times (and three dozen times overall) simply because there’s a full awareness of the clunkers as well as the best moments. So go ahead and read here what you’ll see elsewhere. DHB is a high-risk, high-reward pick. He’s a sure thing to be a great addition to any community, there’s virtually no chance he’ll embarrass a franchise off the field and he’ll work as hard as anyone. But he only had 42 receptions last year, and anyone expecting an immediate savior will instead receive a wideout who still needs some time to polish his game. In the short term, North Carolina’s Hakeem Nicks might be better. Heyward-Bey, though, could still be the better long-term pick.

7. FB Eric Kettani, Navy. Well, maybe not yet, but Kettani could easily turn out to be the next Kyle Eckel – a fullback from the academy who etches out a spot in the NFL. He was exceptional at times (like against Temple and Army) and solid at others. It isn’t always easy finding backfield battering rams; toss in the ability to take a few carries reliably, and Kettani might eventually have a spot when his service commitment is up.

Obviously, there’s some other guys (Nicks, Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith, Maryland cornerback Kevin Barnes and California center Alex Mack) who come to mind as possibilities for this list as well. Some didn’t play all that great on a particular day.

And given the small sample size, that was enough to have that list, weird as it might seem, shake out the way it did.

Patrick Stevens