Before you break out the jokes, it’s important to remember. Manti Te’o was once a very special football player.
Manti Te’o’s career will always be overshadowed by the bizarre episode of the hoax of Lennay Kekua. But that shouldn’t take away from the player that he is, or the role he can carve out with the New Orleans Saints.
But for those not familiar, I’ll just run over the story. It’s hard to avoid. Te’o famously had a cancer-ridden girlfriend in college, Lennay Kekua. She died in the weeks leading up to the Heisman award announcement and the BCS championship game. Te’o was publically heartbroken, and won the sympathy of the nation. But then Deadspin broke a story: there was no Lennay Kekua. She’d never existed. She was made up.
Everyone is familiar with the story. If you’re not, or if you want an in-depth account of the story’s ins and outs, check out Vanity Fair’s article on Kekua and Te’o. It doesn’t exactly clear Te’o’s name. But it gives some insight into the mind of the College Football star.
But it also brings up an important accomplishment that, in the wake of the Kekua story, has somehow been relegated to a side note. Manti Te’o finished second in votes for the 2012 Heisman, only the third defense-only player to ever finish in the top two. No defense-only player has ever won.
Te’o is a very accomplished ILB. He had an immensely successful career at Notre Dame and the Chargers, in turn, drafted him in the second round. In his four years in the league, Te’o started 34 games and totaled 233 tackles. He notched two interceptions and a forced fumble.
He’s not the player in the NFL that he was in college. But that’s okay.
In college, Te’o was a force. He could run and hit, was a vocal leader and a media darling. He’s always been touted for his character, and even after the drama that hasn’t changed. He’s a high football IQ type ILB who can serve as a true quarterback of the defense. And he’s strong, thick, aggressive and instinctive. He can navigate through traffic in the run game and does well to mirror backs.
But he’s not the most athletic LB, and that’s hurt him in the professional level.
It won’t encourage Saints fans to hear that Te’o is not the ideal cover LB. He’s stocky and doesn’t cover ground all too well. He fits the mold of former Saints linebackers that have had success in black and gold, including Jonathan Vilma and Curtis Lofton. But he’s not ideally suited for the ever-evolving NFL.
That’s okay, though. Te’o won’t start for the Saints.
A.J. Klein will hold on to the starting spot over Te’o. And there’s not much chance that Te’o slides over to WLB or SLB. He’s a MLB through and through.
Te’o will provide special team’s play, and will likely be the primary backup behind Klein as the MLB.
The Saints know very well what they’re getting in Te’o. Mike Nolan coached him in San Diego, and brought out the best in the former college star. That connection is likely what drew Te’o’s interest to New Orleans.
The signing signals a few things for the Saints.
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One, they’re not content with the status-quo at linebacker. That’s a positive sign after years of mediocre play all across the position.
Two, they’re serious about improving their special teams. This is the next in a series of moves designed to address and solidify the special team’s group. After losing a few games on special team’s blunders, the Saints are making sure they have players in place for 2017.
And three, Craig Robertson will figure to be the backup WLB behind the oft-injured Dannell Ellerbe. Robertson filled in for Ellerbe when he missed the first half of the season to injury, and filled in well. Then Robertson shifted over to MLB in the wake of James Laurinaitis’s release. Robertson played the year out as the starting MLB. And he was solid.
But the Saints envisaged Robertson as a core special team’s player. And he’s more suited for the WLB role that MLB. With A.J. Klein the prospective starter now, Te’o will likely be the MLB backup. Robertson will get to stick to special teams and fill in at the position he’s most effective at.
This move also doesn’t bode well for Michael Mauti, who’s career is up in the air after stomach surgery ended him 2017 season.
Hopefully, the Saints won’t see Te’o too much in their base defense.
But I only say that because he’s not the projected starter. If Te’o does need to see the field, he’s a better backup than the Saints have in Craig Robertson if only because he’s more suited for the MLB position. And Craig Robertson can fill in exclusively at WLB if—or when—Dannell Ellerbe gets injured.
It’s easy to make jokes at Te’o’s expense. But don’t forget that he’s a good player who will help this team on defense and on special teams. He’s a leader and a locker-room presence. Mike Nolan knows him well. He’s more than just a joke that he’s probably grown all-too-tired of hearing.
Okay, just one joke though.
But seriously, the Saints are doing all they can to address their ailing defense. That, if anything, is an encouraging sign for Saints fans.