The pre-draft evaluation process can be unkind to prospects without exceptional athletic attributes. The emphasis on workouts in shorts and shirts means quality football players with a perceived lack of explosiveness can be overlooked. However, talented players can shine in the NFL despite their shortcomings -- if they are placed in a program that caters to their strengths as a player.
Schein: Perfect pair for San Diego
Oh, I know Te'o's name will draw snickers from observers who are still troubled by the fake girlfriend scandal and his disappointing performance in the BCS National Championship Game, but I'm convinced -- having studied him over the past two seasons -- that he has the traits to be a dominant impact player for the Chargers from Day 1.
Here are three reasons why:
1) Te'o is a perfect fit in the Chargers' 3-4.
The most important part of the scouting process is determining whether a player is an ideal match for a team's respective scheme. While most observers focus their efforts on assessing a player's skills and long-term potential, astute evaluators place greater value on how well a player fits into a team's system, because that ultimately determines whether a player will succeed or fail with said team.
In San Diego, Te'o will man the "Mike" linebacker position in a 3-4 defense that features a myriad of looks under defensive coordinator John Pagano. Last year, the Chargers routinely shifted between "under" (in which the defense shaded to the weak-side), "over" (in which the defensive line shaded to the strong side) and base fronts, depending on the tendencies of their opponent. The utilization of an aggressive one-gap scheme routinely placed the defensive line in a shaded alignment, which prevented blockers from climbing quickly to the second level. Most importantly, the Chargers' young, athletic defensive line (comprised of Corey Liuget, Cam Thomas and Kendall Reyes) created penetration at the point of attack, allowing San Diego's linebackers to chase freely on runs directed between the tackles. As a result, the Chargers held opponents to just 3.8 yards per rushing attempt -- the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL.
At Notre Dame, Te'o played behind a talented defensive line that occupied blockers at the point of attack and funneled plays in his direction. This allowed Te'o to roam freely within the box; he could rely on his instincts and football IQ to find the ball. The similarity of the Chargers' approach means Te'o should quickly emerge as a top playmaker against the run.
Another factor that should contribute to Te'o's rapid development is San Diego's aggressive blitz package. Last year, the Chargers routinely blitzed inside linebackers Donald Butler and Takeo Spikes from a variety of alignments to create confusion at the point of attack. This was an effective tactic, both against the run and as a way to put more pressure on the passer.
In the video to the right, the Chargers are executing the kind of blitz Te'o could run in the fall. Spikes is aligned at "Mike", running through the B-gap on a blitz with Jarrett Johnson looping behind him through the A-gap. The twist combination confuses the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line, resulting in a 10-yard sack of Joe Flacco.
Studying Te'o's game during his final two seasons at Notre Dame, I was very impressed with his ability to rush from the second level. He would attack the line of scrimmage with urgency, showing a knack for working through blockers en route to the quarterback. Te'o finished his collegiate career with eight sacks -- five of which came in 2011, when Notre Dame featured him prominently in its blitz package. Considering Pagano's commitment to ratcheting up the pressure from all angles, Te'o's underrated rush skill could be a big part of the Chargers' game plan in 2013.
2) Te'o is a three-down linebacker.
Most of the criticisms directed at Te'o's game and potential focus on his questionable speed and athleticism. Scouts wondered if he would be quick enough to play in space against shifty running backs, receivers and tight ends in the passing game. Additionally, evaluators questioned whether his impressive takeaway numbers from his senior season were an accurate reflection of his playmaking ability, given the fact that he didn't register any interceptions and forced just two fumbles during his first three seasons in South Bend.
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Now, I certainly understand the doubts about him, based on the marginal production he had as a pass defender for the majority of his career. Still, I believe the film reveals a player with great instincts and an exceptional football IQ. He quickly reads and recognizes routes between the hashes, and he flashes better than anticipated closing quickness when the ball is in the air. Additionally, Te'o shows an uncanny knack for picking off errant passes on tips or overthrows between the hashes. This is important, as the Chargers have a propensity for running a variety of zones and zone-blitz concepts in nickel situations. In those schemes, linebackers routinely are asked to bang or collide with receivers in their area while maintaining vision on the quarterback, so that they can react quickly to his throws. Te'o shined in that phase of the game as a senior, picking off seven passes and getting his hands on a number of balls as a floater in the middle of the field. Most importantly, he provided exceptional coverage between the hashes and solidified a Notre Dame defense that occasionally struggled against prolific passing attacks in the past.
Looking at the Chargers' game tape from 2012, it appears that their defense lacked an instinctive linebacker who could complement Butler in the nickel package. Spikes and Demorrio Williams are respected veterans with terrific instincts and knowledge, but both are on the downsides of their respective careers, and they lack the versatility to stay on the field as three-down players. Te'o is an upgrade at the position; his multi-faceted game will make him a valuable chess piece in the Chargers' nickel package. Whether it means attacking the quarterback on clever A-gap blitzes or bluffing and falling into short-zone coverage, Te'o can impact the game in a variety of ways. Given Pagano's willingness to put his top players in the best position to make plays, Te'o's presence could lift the Chargers' defense from good to great.
3) Te'o will take over as the leader of the defense.
Some observers will raise their eyebrows at the notion of a rookie -- particularly one tainted by something like that bizarre girlfriend hoax -- taking the reins of an emerging defense. But Te'o has already served as the unquestioned leader of a unit loaded with five-star recruits, having earned that station through his exceptional performance and production. He should be fully prepared for his new role with the Chargers.
One shouldn't dismiss the idea that his leadership skills will translate from college to the pros; the management and inspiration of egos on a team is the same at every level. As the "Mike" linebacker, Te'o will be tasked with communicating the calls and adjustments in the Chargers' defense, which means every player will be forced to heed his words in the huddle. Most importantly, he will have ample opportunities to make key plays in critical moments. These plays might not garner much in the way of television highlights, but they will pop off the coaches' tape in meetings.
Given Te'o's penchant for making that kind of mark throughout his career at Notre Dame, it should only be a matter of time before he starts delivering impact plays for the Chargers in practices and games. Once that happens -- and it has already started, according to reports from rookie mini-camp -- Te'o will create an aura that prompts players to follow his example as a leader, cementing his status among the veterans.