Where might Manti Te’o fall in the NFL Draft?
Regardless of the “Catfish” scandal, is Te’o worthy of a first round pick and where might he fit best?
The purpose of this piece is not to retread very, very tired ground and discuss in any detail the “Catfish” scandal that engulfed Manti Te’o this past January. If you’ve somehow managed to remain ignorant of the whole affair (in which case, you are probably to be congratulated – even if it means you have likely been living in a cave for the few months), then simply looking up Manti Te’o on Wikipedia should yield all the answers you could ever need.
Instead, the aim of this piece is to try to answer several questions that are currently surrounding Te’o, namely,
1. What effect will Te'o’s press conference at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine have had?
2. Will Te’o’s leadership ability have been compromised by the scandal? How much of an issue is this?
3. Where will Te’o be selected in the 2013 NFL Draft – will it be lower than before the scandal emerged?
Te’o wisely scheduled a press conference on Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine. It was the first time he had made himself open – and available – to questions from the press and not just from Katie Couric. So far so good. Then, the awaiting audience of reporters were informed that the press conference would be delayed by three hours.
Not so good.
It’s rarely a great idea to delay a press conference. The people you’re inconveniencing are those who are going to be presenting what you say to the public. If they’re annoyed, it will show. At best, you come across as disorganised. At worst, like you’ve got something to hide. When your judgement is under scrutiny, you don’t want either of these labels applied.
Fortunately, there were no further delays. Te’o faced the press, for about 15 minutes and I doubt very much I need to tell you what 99% of the questions were about. And you know what? He dealt with it well. Very well. His answers were calm and intelligent – with just the right amount of humility. Of course it was scripted – but it wasn’t stilted. Putting Te’o out there to face questioning was a calculated risk by his advisory team, but it paid off.
Now, before I go on, I want to get one thing straight – Te’o is an incredibly talented football player. His 113 combined solo/assist tackles and 7 interceptions in 2012 are evidence of this. Te’o though, has always been about more than numbers. One word has been consistently applied to him – one that is impossible to define statistically:
It has become impossible to read anything written on Te’o without seeing mention of this particular intangible and rightly so – the middle linebacker position isn’t known as the ‘quarterback’ of the defense for nothing. Middle linebackers are the leaders of defenses around the league. My question is this – what effect will the scandal have on Te’o’s locker room influence? I’m not going to drag up the debate about whether Te’o was ‘in’ on the scandal. All those involved say he wasn’t and it’s a fruitless debate anyway. That said, this whole saga has been extremely embarrassing for him. Should Te’o have success in the NFL, it’s a situation that will be brought up time and time again by fans of rival teams and rival players as well. That’s a certainty. The danger is that it’s a label which will stick in the locker room – a humiliation that means teammates find it hard(er) to respect him. How likely is this?
Ultimately Te’o’s leadership ability and the respect he commands from teammates will be driven by his performance on field. Of course it’s going to be an issue that will stick with him. You have to look no further than Ray Lewis – an exemplary linebacker and team leader – to see that certain things stay with you (I am not comparing the severity of each player’s respective ‘off field issue’ obviously). If Te’o doesn’t perform – if he’s a bust – then sure, he’ll be “that guy who got catfished”. If he does perform, he’ll gain the respect of his teammates. Football players overlook a multitude of sins – almost anything except poor performance and lack off effort. I doubt Te’o will be guilty of either.
You'd be forgiven for thinking Te'o spent the entire combine talking to the press, when, in reality, he actually managed to get some physical activity in on Monday. Te'o's combine performance wasn't spectacular, but it was far from being a disaster. Unless a player has a terrible combine, the combine doesn't have a huge negative impact on their draft position. The increase to a player's draft stock from a good combine is a lot more pronounced than the decrease due to a bad one - particularly if you have such impressive game tape as Te'o does (the National Championship game notwithstanding). The obvious disappointment was his 40 yard dash time - a rather sluggish 4.82, but he performed better in the other drills. Te'o could have cemented himself as a first round pick with a great combine, but I don't think his performance was bad enough by any stretch to have forced him out of the top 32 picks.
Right, that’s enough of that. Let’s talk about the real issue here: Come the closing days of April 2013, what team will Te’o be calling home? A lot of the speculation around this question has ignored a vital issue – is Te’o good enough to play the Mike in a 4-3 defense?
The issue here is not Te’o’s size, but his performance in one game in particular – the National Championship. Te’o was appalling – recording just 3 solo tackles and being a big part of the reason the Notre Dame defense was obliterated by Alabama. Yes, it’s one game but its one game against a team with a pro-style offense. How players fared against Alabama last year is a good indicator for scouts looking at this year’s draft, not just because of how good Alabama are – but the fact that they play in a pro-style offense.
He’s still - as I said - an incredibly talented football player. That doesn’t mean that he won’t have issues playing in the middle, on his own, in a 4-3.
With that in mind, here are my top five landing spots for Te’o – in order of likelihood.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
The only 4-3 team on my list (though Mike Zimmer uses elements of both 3-4 and 4-3 in his scheme). The Bengals have been highly touted as a fit for Te’o. This is mostly because of their success with players with ‘character issues’ in the past. Whilst that’s understandable, I’m firstly not sure Te’o has a ‘character issue’ and secondly, that’s not reason for making a first round selection! Te’o would fit a position of need for the Bengals – Rey Maualuga was poor last season and the Bengals are picking at number 21 overall – roughly where Te’o has been placed talent-wise. The biggest issue here for me is that I don’t know if Te’o can play on his own in the middle. I think he’d have to come out on too many plays to be worth a first round pick. If the Bengals feel that middle linebacker is their biggest position of need (unlikely – it’s probably at safety), they might look at Te’o but only if there aren’t any more suitable players on the board (I think there will be at that point – inside linebackers don’t go massively high in the first round and you can often get value in the second or third rounds).
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
This is a team that hasn’t been mentioned all that much in the Te’o discussion. They are an aging defense though and whilst the Steelers have traditionally done very well at maintaining a constant inflow of talented players; they have their work cut out this year. James Harrison would rather play dodgeball than restructure his contract, so he might not be back in a Steeler uniform next year and Larry Foote didn’t have a particularly good season. The Steelers linebacking corps is the heart of their defense and Te’o would probably fit right in. The problem is that Pittsburgh has so many needs – both defensive and offensive line, secondary – even wide receiver. The Steelers are also picking at 17 – probably a little too high for Te’o and a spot at which there will still be talent available on the defensive and offensive line. Whilst it may be a good fit, the only way I see this happening is if Te’o is unquestionably the best player at a position of need for the Steelers when it comes to their turn to pick.
3. Denver Broncos
Denver is here simply because it makes sense. The Broncos play a 3-4, they need an inside linebacker and they’re picking at a position (28) that reflects Te’o’s draft stock. The Broncos also have veteran leadership on both sides of the ball that would benefit Te’o. Keith Brooking is 38 and probably won’t be back next year and Joe Mays is yet to convince. The Broncos have needs at secondary but despite the playoff loss to Baltimore (Raheem Moore anyone? Champ Bailey?), this isn’t their biggest need on defence. The Broncos need someone on the inside of the defensive line – it’s arguably their weakest position on defence and this draft has a lot of depth at the defensive tackle position. It’s likely the Broncos go DT in the first round – but if they don’t, then Te’o becomes a good bet for them.
2. Baltimore Ravens
If Te’o is still available when the Ravens pick at number 32, there’s a good chance he goes here. I’ve spoken to a few people who think that Te’o might slip into the second round, but for me, the Ravens are a likely ‘safety net’ to pick him before he slips to pick number 33. Baltimore has an obvious need at middle linebacker since the departure of Ray Lewis and plays a hybrid 3-4 scheme. The Ravens have a propensity for selecting the best player on their board – Te’o may well be that player and he’d fulfil a position of need. At Notre Dame, Te’o played very well behind a defensive line with plenty of weight and plenty of athleticism – just like the Ravens line. You can’t replace Ray Lewis – but Te’o could be a good fit to try and fill the void left by him. The only reason I don’t have them number 1 on this list is because I think Te’o will be picked before the Ravens make their selection by…
1. Green Bay Packers
Picking at 26th overall – around the area Te’o has been mocked by many draftniks – the Packers seem to be the most likely suitor for Te’o. AJ Hawk has a big cap hit (roughly 6.5million) next year and hasn’t provided the playmaking ability the Packers need in the middle. Te’o would. The Packers play in a division where you have to be strong up the middle especially against the run. Defending the run has been a problem for Green Bay – more so in a division with Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson taking up 25% of your schedule. The Packers were dealt a humbling blow by the 49ers in the playoffs last year – Colin Kaepernick tearing apart what appeared to be a very sluggish defense. Te’o might not have prevented that loss but he would have given them much needed athleticism. Te’o would fill a big – perhaps biggest – position of need on the Packers defense. If he’s still there at 26, I think they take him.
There are a couple of other names floating around as well that I’ll deal with very quickly. The Jets need an inside linebacker but the 9th overall pick is too high in the first round to take Te’o. Their defensive line is a more pronounced need as well. If Te’o somehow falls out of the 1st round though, the Jets are a good bet to take him with their high second round pick. The same goes for the Bills as well. Inside linebacker is a position of need and whilst they won’t take Te’o in the first round, they are picking high in the second and could take him there.
Roll on April 25th.
is a writer for Down at the One. If you have any comments or questions regarding this article, feel free to e-mail him at Tom@downattheone.com