|Manti Te'o hopes, in the eyes of NFL evaluators, his on-field play overshadows the recent girlfriend hoax incident.|
Manti Te'o was considered one of the crown jewels of the 2013 NFL Draft class following a spectacular regular season that saw Notre Dame return to prominence. From his inside linebacker position, the Heisman Trophy finalist led the team in tackles, interceptions and pass breakups, while displaying a dynamic personality that galvanized a team that wasn't expected to compete for a national title in 2012.
The overall effort earned Te'o high marks in the NFL scouting community until a dismal performance in the BCS National Championship Game and an embarrassing girlfriend hoax led to concerns about his athleticism, character and leadership skills. With evaluators suddenly questioning Te'o's game and reputation, speculation is running rampant about his stock plummeting down the charts heading into the NFL Scouting Combine.
Now, while I don't have intimate knowledge of Te'o's background nor his role in the girlfriend scandal, I certainly believe he is a blue-chip candidate based on his play on the field. He is a dominant inside linebacker with exceptional instincts and awareness. As a run defender, Te'o is a run-and-chase playmaker with the ability to read and react quickly. He keys off the movement of the guards and attacks the line of scrimmage with an urgency that is unrivaled in the college game. Although Te'o struggled defeating blockers and working through traffic against Alabama in the BCS title game, he controlled the tackle-to-tackle box well in every other contest that I watched on tape.
In pass coverage, Te'o displays excellent route recognition and ball skills. He quickly reads his keys and anticipates throws in his area by reading the eyes of the quarterback. With seven interceptions and a host of pass breakups during his final season, Te'o has demonstrated the ability to play with discipline and focus in zone. Additionally, he displays enough athleticism and quickness to handle most tight ends and running backs in space, which gives him the opportunity to thrive as a three-down player as a pro.
Now, I'm not suggesting that NFL defensive coordinators will want to use him extensively in coverage on the likes of Darren Sproles or Jimmy Graham, but I do believe he is athletic enough to play a role in sub-packages as a nickel linebacker.
Given his versatility, production and football IQ, Te'o should be a coveted commodity in draft rooms around the league despite the questions about his character following the girlfriend scandal. Here are five potential fits for Te'o in the 2013 NFL Draft:
New York Giants (No. 19 overall pick)
The Giants have been in the market for a playmaker in the middle since Antonio Pierce retired in 2010. While New York has attempted to fill the void with a number of veteran and rookie castoffs, the team needs to invest a high-round draft choice in the position to improve a defense that has underachieved in recent years. With Michael Boley's release leaving the Giants without an impact second-level defender in the lineup, the addition of Te'o would address the team's biggest need. Additionally, it would give the Giants a dynamic linebacker with the capacity to change the game with big hits or critical takeaways. Given Jerry Reese's track record for taking the best player available regardless of need, the prospect of adding Te'o would address an area of concern, while adding a blue-collar player ideally suited to play for Tom Coughlin.
Chicago Bears (No. 20)
Brian Urlacher has been the face of the Bears' defense for over a decade, but it is time for the team to groom a replacement with the veteran's game diminishing significantly in recent years. Furthermore, it is possible that Urlacher will not return to the Windy City based on his status as an unrestricted free agent. Given those factors and the fact that new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is retaining the Bears' Tampa-2 scheme, Te'o is a viable candidate to roam the middle in Chicago. He possesses the athleticism and instincts to run down the seam in coverage, while also showing the awareness to come downhill quickly against the run. Most importantly, Te'o displays the toughness, physicality and ball skills to thrive in a defense known for punishing opponents and creating turnovers.
Green Bay Packers (No. 26)
The Packers' defense has shown signs of slippage in recent years with A.J. Hawk lacking the speed and explosiveness to roam effectively from sideline to sideline. With Hawk carrying a big cap number ($6.5 million) heading into 2013, it is time for the Packers to find a young, athletic defender with better playmaking ability. Te'o certainly qualifies after totaling nine takeaways (seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries) as a senior. Additionally, he enters the NFL with extensive experience running a 3-4 defense, which will lead to an easy transition into the Packers' scheme. In a division chock full of Pro Bowl-caliber running backs (Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte) and gifted passers (Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford), the Packers could benefit from the presence of Te'o in the middle.
Baltimore Ravens (No. 32)
The ceremonious departure of Ray Lewis leaves the Ravens with a crater-sized hole in the middle of the defense. The 17-year veteran set the tone with his toughness and physicality and was the heartbeat of the Ravens with his fiery personality. Although Te'o might not be capable of filling Lewis' shoes as a leader, he is a hard-nosed defender with a rugged game that ideally suits the Ravens' persona. Given Te'o's effectiveness playing behind a big, athletic front line, it is hard to find a better landing spot than Baltimore for the Heisman finalist.
Buffalo Bills (No. 8 overall or second round)
The arrival of Mike Pettine as the new defensive coordinator means the Bills will move away from their traditional 4-3, in favor of a hybrid 3-4 that changes looks based on personnel and formations. While the scheme will not appear drastically different on the surface, the Bills' new system places a premium on athletic defenders with instincts, awareness and toughness. Te'o certainly fits the bill as a productive linebacker with exceptional ball skills and football intelligence. With the recent release of Nick Barnett creating a huge void in the middle, Te'o could immediately step into the role of defensive quarterback to solidify the Bills' unit.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks