Manti Te’o was a leader and an icon at Notre Dame. Everyone now seems to expect him to be that same thing for the San Diego Chargers in year one and the next Junior Seau. Let’s slow down for a second and understand Te’o’s role with the team during his upcoming rookie year.
There’s no question that Te’o will start during his rookie year. First of all, teams don’t trade up in the second round to have their guy sit on the bench. Secondly, Te’o’s work ethic and knowledge of the game should help make his transition to the NFL easier than most. And finally, his only realistic competition to start alongside fourth-year linebacker Donald Butler is Jonas Mouton and D.J. Smith. Yes, he’ll have to prove himself like anyone else, but Te’o will definitely get his opportunities as a rookie.
Te’o will have to adjust to the speed of the game, and it doesn’t help that he lacks that elite speed. However, he does make up for it with great recognition skills and instincts that allow him to play faster than what his 40 time indicates. Early on, as he’s still learning the game, he could struggle a bit. But as long as he spends the time in the film room to sharpen his ability to read plays, Te’o should improve as he goes.
With the departure of Takeo Spikes this offseason, the Chargers currently lack that vocal leader to rally the troops. Te’o may be stepping into Spikes’ spot in the starting lineup, but don’t expect him to be that leader just yet.
Donald Butler was already preparing for and was destined for the role in 2013. Te’o, meanwhile, will need to earn a leadership role with the Chargers, and that starts with gaining the respect from his teammates.
However, it might take a little bit more effort than most to earn that respect. Even Butler admitted that Te’o will likely be heckled more than normal rookies due to the fake girlfriend hoax.
But if Te’o handles the jabs well, understands his place as a learning rookie, and proves himself to be a hard worker on and off the field, he’ll earn the respect that will eventually make him a leader in San Diego. And if he does that, Te’o should form a dynamic partnership with Butler for years to come, both as great playmakers and great leaders for the Bolts organization.