Manti Te'o, Tyrann Mathieu draw varying opinions around NFL

At the bottom of an elevator bank, inside the lobby of the Westin hotel in Indianapolis, it was just another casual run-in with an NFL head coach. Nothing unusual at the NFL Scouting Combine. No reason to raise any eyebrows.

"What does (Notre Dame linebacker) Manti Te'o need to do here to help his stock this week?" a reporter asked.

"If he wants to be a first-round pick, he'll need to run a 4.6 40," said the coach, who did not want to be named. "If he doesn't run well, I can't see him getting taken that early."

The conversation quickly ended. The coach entered an elevator. The reporter walked away. And just like that, information was exchanged. It's just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of dialogues that occur during the NFL's biggest convention of the year, each one helping to establish a set of expectations for April's draft.

Now, with the combine finished, perhaps it's important to provide an appropriate dose of reality and perspective to a week's worth of rumors and evaluations. Appreciate the performances. Digest the interviews. Just don't draw any -- not one -- blunt conclusions, especially as it pertains to those highly discussed players like Te'o (who underperformed in workouts) and former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu (who apparently performed well in workouts).

A few days after the conversation with the coach, another exchange with a league executive, this time through text messaging, went like this on Tuesday:

"How much did Tyrann Mathieu help himself with his combine workouts?"

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"I think he helped himself a lot," the source said. "After today, it wouldn't surprise me if someone took a shot at him in the third round, but he'll definitely be off the board in the fourth. He'll be a good nickel corner and punt returner."

So what did we learn here? That Te'o, who posted a higher-than-expected 4.82 in the 40, inevitably will slide to the second round? That Mathieu will now be drafted in the third round? No, instead, the lesson here is simple:

As it pertains to two of the draft's more intriguing players -- Te'o and Mathieu -- we will continue to dig for indications into where each will land in the NFL, attempting to balance their off-the-field issues with their on-field ability. The more we dig, however, the more we'll be left with one overriding lesson.

Everyone has an opinion. Very few of them are the same. And only two of them ultimately will matter: Those of the two general managers who decide they're willing to take the chance and select these men.

Let's get back to Mathieu for a moment. The cornerback, formerly nicknamed "Honey Badger," was tossed from LSU after multiple drug-test failures before he entered a rehabilitation center in August 2012. He apparently was back to his old ways in late October, however, when he was arrested for marijuana possession.

So, yes, this week's combine was huge for him. And it was particularly important that he ran a solid 40 (4.5) and looked very agile in all of his drills. But before you start pushing him up your draft board, be careful how you set your expectations.

Two other sources from two other teams evaluated Mathieu with two completely different opinions, particularly as it pertained to their meetings with the controversial player.

One said Mathieu seemed "very contrite" and "sincere about turning his life around." Another said Mathieu seemed "very rehearsed," "unconvincing" and "didn't ease any concerns." It doesn't get much more opposing than that -- nor is there a much better example of the subjective nature of these evaluations. The second source even went against the belief that Mathieu had a unanimously solid workout, noting that four repetitions on the bench press is "inexcusable."

And remember the coach who said Te'o needed to run a 4.6 to maintain his first-round draft status? Well, after Te'o ran a 4.82, the Chicago Tribune reported that four general managers told the newspaper that Te'o's bad time is not reason for alarm and should not depreciate his draft value. And what about his off-the-field situation, involving an Internet hoax that exposed Te'o as being naïve, a liar or both?

"I think a lot has been blown out of proportion with Manti," New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "We have to depend mostly on our evaluation on what he did on the field."

That's fine. But another league source had a different opinion, saying Te'o's story during interviews didn't clear anything, and noting that the valuation would require more one-on-one time with him and a professional psychiatric evaluation. That doesn't exactly suggest the issues are as "overblown" as Reese publicly suggested.

Instead, we should view all of these opinions with a very open-minded lens, recognizing that it's just as easy to find an opinion within league circles to support a player as it is to find one that knocks him down.

It only takes one team to select someone like Mathieu or Te'o, but that one team has no reason to select the player too early if enough other teams are unimpressed. And so the posturing will continue through April. The strategies will build. The speculations will swirl.

Through it all, everyone needs to recognize the subjective nature of this time of year. We need to realize that analysts and coaches and general managers will have their own independent thoughts on players.

And we need to remember that none of it is worth too much credence or too much criticism until the day the 2013 NFL Draft finally arrives.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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