Manti Te’o — linebacker, Notre Dame.
What I like — without a doubt Te’o has become one of the most discussed and controversial players in this entire NFL draft, but none of what I have to discuss here have anything to do with his fake girlfriend, or all the other catfish nonsense.
This is about him as a football player, and there are some things about Te’o to really like. First, he’s physical. If you look at where Te’o makes plays, you can draw a square from the line of scrimmage tackle to tackle back about eight or nine yards, and that’s where Te’o is at his best.
He is one of the smartest and most instinctive linebackers in this draft, and it shows in the number of big plays he makes. It’s not because he’s the most athletic player on the field — it’s because his football IQ is high. He takes excellent angles to the football, rarely makes a misstep and when he gets to the football, he’s a sure tackler.
Going back to the physical side of his game, Te’o can and will engage and shed blockers. He’s got a strong upper body and uses good leverage to clear players out of the way. Some linebackers like to avoid contact, and that forces them to take bad angles at times and they use their speed to make up for it.
Te’o is the opposite. He goes where the ball is, and works to clear out whoever is in his way. For plenty of defensive schemes, he’s a much better fit because of it.
What I don’t like — Te’o isn’t a great athlete, and because of that, he’s going to be scheme-limited. A statistic that many point to are the number of interceptions Te’o was able to get, but that number is misleading in that most of those plays were on overthrows and tipped passes.
The good news is that it shows he can play the short zones and has decent hands. The bad news is he’s not good in man coverage and isn’t fluid enough to turn and run with backs or tight ends. In today’s NFL, there are more and more teams incorporating two tight end sets, so to use the football cliché, Te’o is likely a two-down linebacker who will come off the field on passing downs.
He’s not fluid in his hips and without any long speed, he would be a liability against today’s NFL athletes. You saw it in the BCS Championship game, where the speed of Alabama left him flat-footed at times, unable to contend with superior speed and quickness.
What it all means — where Te’o is going to be drafted will depend largely on what a team wants out of their inside linebacker. If the team runs a 3-4 base defense and is looking for a run-stuffing two-down linebacker that can be in the box making plays, then Te’o can be that guy.
Te’o gets a lot of heat for the national championship game, and rightfully so, but his career — in particular his senior season — was tremendous. I have no qualms about recommending Te’o to a 3-4 as a part of the puzzle at linebacker. He’s the type of physical in the box linebacker who can help keep safeties back out of the box and protect them, so they can focus on coverage.
The old school term for this type of linebacker is a “thumper” and there’s nothing wrong with having a good thumper on a roster. I am not sure if I would draft a two-down inside linebacker with a first-round pick in a draft class that is this deep and this talented, but it’s very fair to consider a player with this much football acumen, great physical build and solid fundamentals as a high second-round pick.
His 40 times doesn’t matter, his fake girlfriend doesn’t matter. Te’o is a solid football player in a draft that doesn’t have a ton of talent at inside linebacker, so don’t be at all shocked if he goes even earlier than anyone expects.