Manti Te'o of Notre Dame projects as long-term linebacker in NFL

Ben Liebenberg/NFL
Manti Te'o led Notre Dame in tackles (103) and interceptions (seven) en route to an undefeated regular season.

Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein is likely to be viewed an enigmatic NFL prospect this spring, a great athlete and winner who's raw as a passer. Same is likely to go for Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel -- a spectacular, but undersized and unconventional quarterback -- whenever the redshirt freshman comes out.

That's not the case with the other Heisman Trophy finalist. Through 48 career starts, scouts and executives have about as clear a read into what Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o is as you could imagine.

That doesn't mean they won't learn more in February, March and April. They'll still look into his background. His 40, given some skepticism over his speed, will be important. The impression he makes in interviews will count.

But Te'o is a near certainty to go in the first round, even with his limitations. How high he's taken is what's left to be determined.

"He's certainly a very good first- and second-down player, with the size and strength to meet blockers," one AFC executive said. "And he did improve this year in coverage, got his hands on the ball, pick it off. He just worked to improve his game. Last year, you saw a guy who you thought might be able to do it. This year, you got more. He may be better in zone than man, but he's instinctive enough to consistently be in the right place at the right time."

Trouble for Te'o is, typically, those types of players don't go in the top 10.

Since 2000, only eight off-the-line (meaning non-hybrid) linebackers have gone in that range. The list is pretty hit-or-miss: LaVar Arrington, Brian Urlacher, Ernie Sims, Jerod Mayo, Keith Rivers, Aaron Curry, Rolando McClain and Luke Kuechly. Of those, only Urlacher, Mayo and McClain came in like Te'o, considered true "Mike" linebackers.

That's not to say there isn't value in a defense's field general, or that the position has been diminished in any way. It's just that it's hard to find a player who fits both the mental and the physical profile in what the NFL seeks.

"You look and see even Ray Lewis was taken in the 20s, because he was too small," an AFC college scouting director said. "Sometimes you feel like, when you're looking at that middle linebacker position, you can sacrifice some of the athletic ability to have the guy who can run your defense. That's the thing with Manti. He has the size and athleticism to be picked around 15, but he may go higher than that."

The scouting director explained why with an example: "You see a defense where money's invested on the line and you have horses, like a Buffalo, that's missing that component in the middle, and they could say, 'Hey, we can live with his limitations,' maybe take him seventh or eighth to plug that hole, and walk away with a damn good player."

The college director said Te'o, on tape, looks like a "bigger Lofa Tatupu" who can have a Tedy Bruschi-like impact in being a player that a club can build around. And Te'o's leadership ability -- being the centerpiece in the rise of a defense that's been lacking over the past decade, and going undefeated -- won't go unnoticed in April.

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But Te'o is far from the perfect prospect. There are more athletic linebackers in college football, like Georgia junior Alec Ogletree for one, and teams could prefer that type of player, given the matchup problems defenses are faced with weekly.

"Speed will be a factor with Manti, because you're gonna be in a position to cover backs and tight ends at that spot, and not just on third down," the AFC exec said. "Teams throw on first and second down, so you have to be able to run and cover. You don't want liabilities in coverage in your base. I don't think he's a liability. Does he run well enough? He's not speed-deficient, but with his play speed, in covereage, there are some specific guys you'd have questions about.

"Guys like Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, or the (Chris) Cooley or (Dallas) Clark types, those guys get separation. You might be worried about him there."

One agreement here from the evaluators is that while Kuechly might not have been the superior college player, he was a better prospect than Te'o. The Carolina Panthers rookie, they say, has better range, better top-end speed, more position flexibility, and even better instincts (Kuechly was considered on the Ray Lewis level there), in addition to being taller (Kuechly is 6-foot-3, 235 pounds; Te'o is 6-2, 255).

"But that's not to say Te'o is a lesser player," the exec continued. "The other guy is just better all-around."

So where does that leave Te'o? About here: a fantastic prospect viewed by most evaluators as a potential decade-long answer for a defense at the middle linebacker position. If your defense is elite, he won't be its best player. But he certainly has shown that, one day, he'd be able to lead that kind of group.

"Leadership at that position, you put a premium on it," the AFC exec said. "He can make calls and checks, communicate to the line and the secondary, get everyone lined up properly. He can be the face of your defense. With his leadership skills, you know he'll be respected. And at that position, you're front and center, that intangible part is important."

And so in the end, Te'o might not be 100 percent ideal in the NFL's eyes at his position. But he's plenty good enough.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.