This is the fifth in a series of 10 looks at the available prospects in the draft. This one covers inside and middle linebackers. Other installments: Safety | offensive line | cornerbacks | running backs
After an anticlimactic end to his senior season and tumultuous offseason leading up to the NFL draft, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o will learn his ultimate fate next week.
Will he hear his name called in the first round, which seemed like a lock after his junior season, and even for portions of his senior year, when he finished as a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy? Or will his rather pedestrian performance in the BCS National Championship and the bizarre girlfriend “hoax” cause teams to pass on Te’o in next Thursday’s first round?
In what has been a three-month job interview, Te’o has worked to put the embarrassment of the hoax behind him. At the NFL Scouting Combine back in February, Te’o said he had a simple strategy for when interviewing with teams, both in Indianapolis and in pre-draft visits: “just to be honest in anything and everything you do, from the big things to the small things.”
When it comes to his play, Te’o has tried to share with teams what drives him, and that his desire to win and strong work ethic will enable him to make a successful transition to the NFL.
“I think what I bring to the table is a lot of heart, a lot of energy and somebody that works hard; somebody who hates to lose,” he says. “I always say, ‘I hate losing more than I love to win.’ The reason why I love to win is because I don’t have to go through that feeling of losing. It’s those times where I lose that feeling that will stick with me. For teams I tell them, ‘You’ll always get somebody who’s humble, works hard, doesn’t say much and will do everything it takes to win.’ ”
Despite the offseason circus, Te’o still is regarded as the top inside linebacker prospect of the draft. In fact, according to a number of mock drafts, he’s the only inside linebacker considered to have a chance of going in the first round. LSU’s Kevin Minter is projected for the second round, and Oregon’s Kiko Alonso and Iowa State’s A.J. Klein both are expected to go in the third or fourth round.
Te’o’s pre-draft measurables (4.75-second 40-yard dash, 21 reps of 225 in the bench press, 33-inch vertical leap, 9-foot-5 broad jump) were solid. At 6-1, 241 pounds, he has a strong frame, and although he doesn’t possess blazing straight-line speed, he has good anticipation, moves well laterally and does well against the run.
NFL teams will decide whether they are convinced enough that Te’o can be an impact player and leader to cause them to spend a first-round pick on him. If so, will he be a high first-rounder, mid- or late-rounder?
Former NFL coach Jon Gruden believes that Te’o has shown enough good to outweigh any concerns about him.
“I like the fact that he’s a four-year starter, and he has tremendous production,” Gruden said. “I’ve seen him intercept passes, I’ve seen him make all kinds of different tackles, pursuit, second-effort tackles. I’ve seen him get out of the trash, get off blocks, stuff people in the hole. He can play in a 3-4 scheme, he can play in a 4-3 scheme. He never comes off the field. I really like that about him. I’ve also seen him be the quarterback of a pretty doggone good defense. They only gave up 10 points a game. Against Stanford, for instance, I saw him automatic to a blitz. I saw him check out of the blitz. I think he’s got a real good football aptitude. He plays faster, I think, than people give him credit for. I think he’s a very good, instinctive, high-effort, well-coached, inside linebacker that’s got to prove he can play on every down. There is no question about that. I’m really confident that he can do it.”
Te’o paid the Detroit Lions, who pick fifth overall, a pre-draft visit. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper believes he certainly will go in the first round, possibly to Chicago, the Giants or Vikings.
“I think Chicago at 20. If not, the latest I think he falls is to Minnesota at 23,” Kiper says. “It’ll be interesting to see if a team like Minnesota, knowing that Chicago could have an interest, the Giants could have an interest at 19, tries to move up a little bit to get Te’o, especially ahead of a team in their own division with Chicago having the same need area. So that’s an interesting dynamic when you get two teams in the same division and you’ve got the same player, Te’o, fitting both spots tremendously well.”
Jones’s top 10 Inside linebackers:
|1||Manti Te’o||Notre Dame||6-1||241||1-2|
|5||A.J. Klein||Iowa State||6-1||250||3-4|
|6||Kevin Reddick||North Carolina||6-2||248||4-5|
|8||Jonathan Stewart||Texas A&M||6-4||242||5-6|
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