The NFL draft community seems to be warming up to Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, the man who was a victim of the fake-girlfriend hoax and visibly crumpled in an embarrassing manner in front of a national audience during the BCS National Championship against Alabama.
Now apparently back in everyone’s good graces, Te’o was the selection for the New Orleans Saints at No. 15 overall in the 2013 NFL draft—at least according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper.
We think it’s a pertinent issue worth diving back into for the sake of discussion.
Forget for a moment his girlfriend problems or him being absolutely barreled over when his team needed it most. Te’o was the most sought-after linebacker in the country before his work came crashing down.
Take the positives from CBS’ Rob Rang as proof of Te’o talent:
STRENGTHS: Possesses a typical Polynesian build. Has a stocky, powerful frame with overall weight distribution and a naturally low-center of gravity which aids him in anchoring against blockers. Shows very good key and diagnosis skills, correctly identifying the intent of the play and quickly attacking.
May not possess elite straight-line speed as timed in workouts but consistently gets to the edge due to his lateral agility, balance and anticipation. Generally a reliable open field tackler. Brings his hips as he hits the ball-carrier, powering through him and wrapping his arm securely for the tackle. Does a nice job of forcing the ballcarrier to commit, rarely allowing cut-back opportunities.
It’s all true. Te’o is a force against the run and work well in the NFL as a pure run-stuffer in a 3-4 defense. This way he won’t have to deal with defending the pass often, like he would if he were the inside linebacker in a 4-3.
Of course, where there’s positives there has to be negatives. In Te’o case, the negative column continues to build:
Does not possess elite straight-line speed and may struggle to beat the NFL’s faster backs to the edge. Was protected by an awfully talented defensive front at Notre Dame and struggled to get off blocks against Alabama when they were unable to keep blockers away from him.
While remarkably productive as a pass defender in 2012, does not possess ideal change-of-direction skills for man coverage responsibilities against NFL pass-catchers. May have shorter than ideal arm-length, which contributed to his slipping off ballcarriers, on occasion. Regardless of the reason, Te’o played poorly in the biggest game of his life… Must reassure NFL teams in the pre-draft process that he is the man of integrity he’d been characterized as throughout his career.
Rang pretty much reinforces what we already said. Te’o is a good enough run defender, but it is worth mentioning that he struggles at times to get off blocks and misses tackle because of his less than ideal length. If you ask him to cover anyone in the passing game, you are probably not a very good coach.
As a prospect, Te’o is climbing back up draft boards, apparently as high as No. 15 overall if you trust Mr. Kiper. Maybe time truly does heal all wounds.
None of this means the Saints should, or would actually take Te’o at No. 15. Right?
Right now the two starting inside linebackers in Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 scheme project to be David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton. Since Te’o does not have the skill set to play outside linebacker, these are the two players the Saints’ coaching staff has to feel are worth replacing in order to bring Te’o in at No. 15.
Lofton isn’t going anywhere. He recorded 123 total tackles last year and was one of the lone bright spots on the NFL’s worst defense. Yes, he was run over like the rest of the unit, but if you had to pick one guy who deserves to stick around, it’s probably him.
Hawthorne is another story. He was just as bad, if not worse than Lofton and only notched 38 tackles in 16 games. If Te’o is going to replace someone, it would be Hawthorne.
It’s hard to argue Te’o is any better than Hawthorne at this point. Te’o does not have experience in the system just like Hawthorne, but at least the latter has experience at the NFL level and is already on the roster.
Taking Te’o to maybe upgrade at linebacker sacrifices upgrades elsewhere. Who’s the starting nose tackle? Brodrick Bunkley has never played in a 3-4. Who starts at cornerback across from Keenan Lewis? Do we really want to see another 16 games with Patrick Robinson starting?
Better yet, who is protecting Drew Brees? Jermon Bushrod is gone and there is no one of starting-quality talent on the roster to protect his blindside.
The point is, taking Te’o would not only sacrifice other areas of need, it would smell of a move only the New York Jets would make—one that gains the team as much publicity and ESPN time as possible.
Te’o is a decent player in his own right. However, New Orleans has too many other, more pressing needs along the roster to gamble on a player whose stock fluctuates as much as the reality of his relationships do.
Maybe Sean Payton and Co. see something we don’t. Maybe they are truly set on bringing him in with their first-round pick. We think that would be a huge mistake. It would be, right?