Manti Te'o May Be a Media Punchline, but What Does the Game Tape Say?
Now that the media frenzy has subsided around Manti Te'o, maybe it's time to take an actual objective look at his projected draft stock in April.
First, let's get the junk out of the way. I do radio spots around the country on a daily basis, and every single time I talk about Te'o, the fact that he was a "top-five" player is always brought up. That just is not nor ever has been the case with Te'o. I also talk to NFL personnel people on an almost-daily basis and have never heard of him as a top-15 pick, let alone top-five.
Even scouts who believe the hoax stuff won't change his stock if he's a lock for the first round.
As much as Te'o is a punchline now, let's not forget he was a media darling before this. So, if the hoax might artificially sink his stock before draft day, the narratives around him at Notre Dame were artificially inflating it beforehand.
Notre Dame has as national a fanbase as anyone in the country. It's why it doesn't need to join a conference for football and why NBC carries its games exclusively. Catholics from the East Coast (save for those pesky Boston College fans) to the West Coast have an intimate connection with the university because of their religious connection, and it was for a long time one of the premier "front-runner" teams in the country (along with the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees).
For decades, it didn't matter what someone's real favorite team was; the ultimate symbol of cool was a Starter jacket featuring either the Notre Dame leprechaun or the Miami Hurricane ibis.
With the Fighting Irish's resurgence, Te'o quickly became a face of that success. He was (arguably) the team's best player for the past couple of seasons and one of its best draft prospects. When the Heisman campaign heated up and the girlfriend story started making him a superstar, it's easy to see why Mel Kiper (and others) put Te'o near the top of their early mocks.
Early Misses Like That Are Part of the Process
First, let's take a second to talk about the draft process.
It's easy to bash someone like Mel Kiper, who is more visible than any other draft expert (and not just because you can see his hair from space). NFL personnel guys don't love Kiper, but they respect him because he puts his opinions out there. Scouts can hop from job to job and no one really knows whom they've missed the boat on. Kiper has to deal with scores of fans who forget his successes and save his mistakes on YouTube.
So, rather than just scream "Kiper is wrong!" like I'm sure many have, it's worthwhile to talk about what mocks are.
First, the idea that mocks predict what a team will do is laughable at best. Anything outside of the top few picks is a complete crap shoot, and the first trade will immediately deep-six any mock's accuracy on draft day. Want to start predicting trades? You might as well play the lottery, because the odds are better.
Some draft media peg their mock-draft accuracy as a sign of their expertise. Frankly, that's the intellectual equivalent of falling out of your chair, landing in an athletic-looking stance and claiming you're a ninja.
Real draft expertise is found in player grades holding up over time. Call a guy an all-time great and he flops? That's a ding against your record. Call a guy a top pick and two teams decide they have more pressing needs, and that's just incorrect educated guessing. Because guess what. When teams set up their draft boards, all of them are just as wrong about what the first round will actually look like as the media are.
All of this is, of course, compounded by the fact that Te'o was a "top-five pick" months ago and we're still months away from the draft. At that point, mocks aren't even educated guessing—they're shots in the dark, and everyone knows it. Juniors haven't declared for the draft. There are still games left to play. Teams haven't talked to any of the players or watched them work out at the Senior Bowl, combine or pro days.
Internally, for someone in draft media, the process isn't any further along. Draft boards are hardly set, and top 100s, top 250s, etc. are going to change a dozen times before April. Is it really that crazy, at that point, to see the hype around Te'o and believe some team would fall in love?
Of course not.
Remember, there's a big difference between saying "Te'o will be a top-five pick" and "Te'o is a top-five player." It only takes one team to go against the grain and pick a guy higher than the other 31 teams would. When Kiper (and others) predicted that Te'o would go that high, they were simply feeling the very real momentum surge and hadn't dove into his tape enough to warrant dropping him any lower.
But No, Seriously, Te'o Was Never Going That High
Te'o is a 4-3 middle linebacker. Quite honestly, that's everything you need to know about him to doubt whether he was ever going in the top five of the draft. Historically speaking, there just isn't a pressing need for 4-3 middle linebackers in the draft, and even teams with gaping holes at the position aren't going to take one over an elite passer, pass-rusher, pass-protector or pass-interceptor.
This isn't 1980—running the ball and stopping the run stopped being the formula for success a while ago.
So, if you're going to take a middle linebacker for your 4-3 defense, they'd better be a crazy positive outlier. This is also true for running backs, interior offensive linemen, in-the-box safeties, tight ends and (more and more) receivers. Those positions don't have the same value as a top QB/DE/3-4 OLB/OT. It's not a knock against anyone—it's the way NFL teams think.
Is Te'o an outlier? No.
We sure like to talk about him, but he was never the collegiate football player that Patrick Willis was—period. It's not even that close. Unless your last name is Holtz and you have "Touchdown Jesus" tattooed somewhere unmentionable on your body, this shouldn't be up for debate.
I'm not even 100-percent sure that Te'o matches up with Luke Kuechly (and Panthers fans are sure to remind everyone that I'm not as high on Kuechly as others). Kuechly actually had a similar profile to Te'o—great athlete, good all around, trouble with bigger blockers, tendency to slip blocks rather than shed them. We'll have to wait until the combine for a direct comparison, but Te'o never looked as athletic as Kuechly on tape, and Kuechly never had any character issues to deal with.
We've seen a lot of other fantastic linebackers come out of the draft in recent years—Lavonte David, Bobby Wagner, Sean Lee, James Laurinaitis, etc—and it's probably early to put Te'o on top of that list as well.
As I said earlier, it only takes one team to make Te'o a higher pick than expected, but it's hard to see how any team would consider him head and shoulders above that group.
So, About That Whole Lying-to-the-Media Thing...
While there is still speculation and confusion about what in the world actually happened surrounding Te'o this season, here is what we know:
Te'o had a "girlfriend" named Lennay Kekua who reportedly died from either leukemia or a car accident (Both? Maybe the truck was named "leukemia."). Te'o had never actually met this reported girlfriend, but he had intimate details about her without having ever seen her in person. He purportedly was speaking to her and her family both before her accident and afterward.
It was a touching story that helped drive Te'o's stardom right toward Heisman potential.
Oh yeah, and none of it was true.
Kekua was actually Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who is a self-styled prankster and a legitimate narcissist who had tried out his "girlfriend voice" (and a sob story) on an audition for the talent competition The Voice. Tuiasosopo would later tell Dr. Phil that he fell in love with Te'o and that his phone-boyfriend (yes, that is what it was) had nothing to do with the hoax.
However, Te'o himself confessed to lying after Kekua's death. He told Katie Couric that he lied after learning about the hoax when he was a finalist for the Heisman. He and his family contend that he was innocent before that. So, if things could get any worse, he's basically admitting to being both a liar and a rube.
This is all going to go over real well in the locker room, eh?
Actually, for what it's worth, this is going to come to a head at the combine, where every single team will want to have a chat with Te'o.
Whether it's out of general interest in him as a prospect or whether it's just out of morbid curiosity, coaches and personnel men will relish the chance to test Te'o's mental mettle. They will alternate between grilling him about what he knew and didn't know and having him answer X's and O's questions about his play. They'll ask him to diagram plays on the white board while firing shots at him about his sexual preferences and how he could be so ignorant about the hoax.
They'll want to rattle him, and it's likely some will.
He'll go toe-to-toe with Rex Ryan, Mike Singletary, Greg Schiano and the other roughest personalities in the league. They'll get right up in his grill and use language that would get me fired if I uttered it here. They will try to get him off his game, make him make a mistake. If he can't hold up under a little spittle, how can he take on offensive linemen taking cheap shots at him all game? At least, that's the justification for the practice.
Teams that are impressed with his poise will keep him on their boards. If he doesn't answer the questions to their satisfaction, dodges them or gets overly flustered, it's game over with that team.
Frankly, for as many mocks that have Te'o replacing Ray Lewis in Baltimore, it's just as unlikely that Te'o will be able to withstand the legendary combine interviewing of Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens' front office.
In all, outside that process, the hoax issues will likely be a complete non-factor for many teams.
What About Te'o as, You Know, an Actual Football Player?
Here's the scouting report on Te'o: He's smart (at least on the field), takes great angles and doesn't often look lost in space. He's been well-coached and may not have a ton of room for improvement at the NFL level, but that may not matter. He's polished up and ready to go. He moves well laterally and should have enough fluidity and linear speed to run with most NFL tight ends and backs out of the backfield.
The primary negative on him is that he's not an elite athlete. He'll get matched up with the Vernon Davis or Aaron Hernandez types of the NFL and get left in their dust. He can do everything right from an angle/first-step standpoint and still get beat to the edge. This is typical for the position, but it keeps him out of the "outlier" discussion as mentioned above.
Another negative on him is how he engages blockers—or, rather, how he doesn't. While he can often find his way through traffic, teams are typically able to run against him if they're able to get a blocker directly on him. In an NFL where every team dabbles in zone-blocking, this could be a legitimate concern—especially for teams in divisions with Washington, Seattle or Houston.
In the games I viewed for this season and last (Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State), Te'o made himself a factor in those games. He has the ability to track players, almost instinctually, through the line of scrimmage. He's a sure tackler and a decent blitzer when he's asked to do so. He didn't stand out as a liability in coverage, but was exposed at times against faster quarterbacks.
Overall, based on his play, Te'o is certainly a player in the discussion for many teams in the first round. He can start immediately, will endear himself to his coaches and should insert himself into teams' long-term plans. While I doubt he'll be a cornerstone for the team that drafts him, he will be a valuable piece. I expect him to go in the bottom half of the first round, to whichever team is most comfortable with his off-the-field issues.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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