Inside linebacker is not a very highly valued position in the NFL draft. A player must have elite tools, instincts and production to get consideration in the first. The name that keeps coming up atop the 2013 NFL draft eligible class is Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. The accolades are piling up for Te'o, but what about his play on the field? Is he deserving of a first-round pick next April?
Te'o is a massive linebacker at 6'2", 255 lbs. He is not particularly fast in a straight line, and he does not change direction quickly. In general, he is a little stiff and upright, and he also plays with a deliberate sense about his movements, except when he is moving in a straight line.
Te'o does not have legitimate sideline-to-sideline range, but his size makes him ideal for inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, where range is not as important. He has a decent motor and is generally moving toward the ball until the whistle.
Instincts are not his strength, as Te'o appears to be guessing or reacting to what is happening instead of anticipating on most plays. He often guesses wrong or is a beat late from making a play, but Te'o still disrupts enough to be a catalyst for his teammates to make plays.
The senior's best attribute is his stout, physical play. He is willing to sacrifice his big body to allow others to make plays. On this play, he meets the lead blocker in the hole:
Te'o forces the play outside, where the back is tackled for a loss:
Te'o's deliberate nature makes his read and react abilities a bit deficient for a prospect with a reputation for being elite. He flows to the play steadily, but he doesn't burst out of his stance or otherwise "sniff" out the play as if the game is talking to him.
Te'o is slow and not at all sudden when changing directions. Misdirection plays and play-action passes are going to give him a lot of trouble at the next level. In general, he plays with a little hesitation in his game and does not react instantly or explosively to what is happening around him. He is much better when the play is in front of him than he is when the play forces Te'o to use lateral movement or turn and run.
Te'o does a few things well in this area. One is using his hands to keep blockers off of his body while he flows to the play. The other is reading and reacting when the play only requires him to move in a straight line.
On this play, Te'o is the counterpart of the excellent Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham:
Te'o reads the direction of the run and it's a race between him and Graham to the edge:
Te'o wins the race and easily brings Graham down:
Te'o is surprisingly not a thumper for such a large linebacker. He doesn't hit with a thud, and rarely jolts the ball-carrier unless another defender is holding them up. He is not a sure tackler and can be eluded or have his tackles broken very frequently for a prospect who is thought of as a first-rounder.
Te'o sometimes stops his feet and reaches for the ball-carrier, which often results in a missed tackle. For someone with 324 total career tackles, Te'o is not a very good tackler.
Playing on the Offensive Side of the Line of Scrimmage
When you have 13.5 tackles for loss in a season, as Te'o did in 2011, you know that playing on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage is a big part of a linebacker's game. Te'o seems to love to blitz, and it does work well with his ability to make plays when he is asked to play in straight lines. He does come downhill with a burst and times his blitzes well, but he can not change direction when the quarterback moves in the pocket.
His deliberate nature can help him when a quarterback tries to pump fake, because Te'o can get his big arms up as he is still closing in on the passer.
That nature takes Te'o out of this key third down late in the Pittsburgh game. Te'o has a bead on Graham:
A wide receiver is coming back to block Te'o, but with his size advantage and momentum, the blocker should present no challenge:
Instead, Te'o stops when the wideout initiates contact, and takes his eyes off of Graham to watch the quarterback for a moment:
The result is a completion, as Te'o is now completely out of position:
As he is not a burner or quick-twitch athlete, you would think that Te'o struggles in pass coverage. You would be wrong. Te'o is at least adequate to good dropping into zones with correct depth. He is excellent at reading and closing on crossing routes, and these plays often see Te'o deliver his most punishing hits of the game.
Te'o can surprisingly turn and run with receivers if they are not speedsters. On the play, Te'o is responsible for the slot receiver:
He runs with the receiver as they try to get open in the middle of the field:
The receiver is open to create a little separation, but with Te'o making the throw more difficult, the quarterback is forced too high and long and the receiver can not make the catch:
Te'o is an attractive prospect on some levels. He is a big, physical linebacker who is not a liability in coverage. He is a durable, stalwart starter and tough leader who will be a stabilizing influence on a defense. However, the elite physical tools and preternatural instincts that turn inside linebackers into first-round picks are just not there.
Te'o might be thought of as a first-rounder right now, but once he's put under a microscope this spring, he'll find his home in the second or third round.