With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#39: Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
We continue this year's series with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o ... and we'll assume that no official introduction is necessary, since this young man has been in the news quite a bit of late. If you're not quite up to date on the "catfishing" scandal, feel free to head to your favorite search engine, and you're in for a treat.
From a football perspective, Te'o was one of the country's big-time high school recruits coming out of the Punahou School in Hawaii -- the same high school Barack Obama attended. The former Eagle Scout, who always involved himself in charitable endeavors, was thought to be full of intangibles, which probably inflated his draft grade until things started crashing down a few months ago.
However, he did start 10 games as a true freshman for Notre Dame in 2009, and he amassed well over 100 tackles in the 2010-2012 seasons. 2012 was a bit of a different story for Te'o -- though he improved as a pass defender, racking up seven interceptions after having none in his first three collegiate seasons, he was also exposed as an inside linebacker against more powerful offenses -- especially Stanford, and most definitely Alabama in the most recent BCS championship game.
Even before the scandal broke, the narrative on Te'o changed from "sure high first-round pick" to "high-character guy with some ugly game tape." With nothing but the tape and a host of personal questions left to answer, NFL teams have to wonder what they're getting if they select Manti Te'o -- especially after a slow 40 at the scouting combine. That performance in Indianapolis also left people wondering how Te'o, who had reduced about 15 pounds from his formerly 6-foot-2, 255-pound frame, could effectively match up with the speed of the modern NFL.
The 40 time at home was one step in the right direction. In a month, give or take a day, "I think what I bring to the table is a lot of heart, a lot of energy and somebody that works hard," Te'o said at the combine, when one reporter screwed up and asked him an actual football question. "Somebody who hates to lose. 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.'"
Again, intangibles. What does the tape show? Though Te'o is one of the most decorated football players in NCAA history (Walter Camp, Bednarik, Lombardi, and Nagurski awards) and a near Heisman Trophy winner, graduation to the NFL is going to be tough.
Pros: Key shot-caller in one of college football's best defenses. Te'o is a quality player in space when he gets a step-quick head start from his pre-snap reads. Runs well with in-line and flex tight ends up the seam, and defends slants in transition reasonably well. Reads gaps fairly well. Plays well as an underneath defender against four-and five-wide sets -- generally has a very good feel for bodies around him. Shows good lateral agility and ability to sift through trash when chasing backs on outside runs. Noted for his on-field awareness, and this shows up in a few ways -- he doesn't bite hard on play action (no, for all the jokes, he doesn't always bite on the fake, at least on the field), and his 2012 interception total, though inflated by deflections and missed picks by other Notre Dame defenders, does show a "right place/right time" sense that NFL teams will value.
Doesn't always hit opening lanes with authority, but seems to diagnose them well. Slides off angle blocks far more effectively than he does off of head-on blocks -- will keep chasing the ballcarrier efficiently when blocked to the side or below the belt. Will, however, get off head-on blocks when he pushes or stabs before he's fully engaged. Legitimate every-down linebacker at the high collegiate level, though more powerful offensive concepts seem to bedevil him, and that could be magnified at the next level.
Cons: Does not consistently shed second-level blocks well, nor is he consistently able to peel off blocks at the line -- a liability that presented itself before the BCS game against Alabama. Doesn't always hit running lanes with the speed and force you'd expect from an elite inside linebacker prospect. Drops instinctively into coverage after reading pass, but generally takes half a tick to get moving back in space -- that half a tick could cost him more in the NFL. Less fluid and more choppy when transitioning on the move. As a tackler, does a lot of diving and "guessing" -- he doesn't wrap up enough and will whiff on more tackles than he should.
More a one-lane player than one of the new wave of speed linebackers (Lavonte David, Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner). Needs to be in the lane or depth he's covering. Doesn't cover a lot of ground in a hurry from pre-snap stance, and needs bodies around him to succeed. Heavily reliant on an outstanding defensive front, and didn't always make plays when set up for success. Does not display the pure physical leverage one would like to see from a true NFL-level inside linebacker -- he'll get rocked out of gaps and lanes with distressing ease and frequency. Racks up high tackle numbers with a large percentage of ankle-grabs and pile-ons.
Conclusion: Were he available for the draft ten years ago, Manti Te'o would be perceived, quite rightly, as a potential star middle linebacker in a professional Cover-2 or Tampa-2 defense. But that was in an era when teams didn't play nearly as much nickel and dime coverage, and inside linebackers weren't tasked with covering so much more of the field. Back then, players like Lofa Tatupu and Barrett Ruud could use their on-field instincts to make up for their liabilities as pure space players. The transitional players, like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Jonathan Vilma, were able to forge their skill sets into the broader linebacker profiles required today. But now, with speed linebackers ruling the day, and those players expected to act as bigger midline safeties for all intents and purposes, the fear is that Te'o could be left behind ... figuratively and literally.
When I watched Te'o read and react to plays, generally a half-step late from a speed perspective even though he diagnosed the thing correctly, it brought to mind a long pass San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw to tight end Vernon Davis in Kaepernick's first NFL start against the Chicago Bears in the 2012 season. The 49ers splayed Chicago's defense wide with pre-snap motion, leaving Davis one-on-one with Briggs, who no longer possessed the speed and agility to keep up with Davis.
I superimposed Te'o into such plays, and I didn't see many opportunities for him to catch up in the same ways that faster linebackers can in the modern NFL. Add to that his well-documented inability to consistently beat bigger blockers, and his definite need for linemen to open things up, and I think Te'o might wind up as a niche player in the pros -- until and unless he can bring his on-field game to a different level in a number of areas. Among his draft prospect contemporaries at linebacker, LSU's Kevin Minter is a far better run-fit hitter, while Alec Ogletree and Arthur Brown are more dynamic in space.
Catfishing and other off-field shenanigans aside, the real NFL question for Manti Te'o is, where does he fit? It's not as easy an answer as it should be.
NFL Comparison: Barrett Ruud, Nebraska Cornhuskers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers
More Shutdown 50:
#50: Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State | #49: John Jenkins, DL, Georgia | #48: Cornellius "Tank" Carradine, DE, Florida State | #47: Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State | #46: Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse | #45: E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State | #44: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU | #43: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson | #42: Kyle Long, OL, Oregon | #41: Mike Glennon, QB, North Carolina State | #40: Jonathan Cyprien, SS, Florida International
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