The Baltimore Ravens need additional linebackers this year, to replace the retiring Ray Lewis and potentially to take over for Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, both of whom are unrestricted free agents.
With the salary cap a concern, the best way for the Ravens to bolster their linebacker depth and find potential starters is through April's draft. The one player the team seems to be linked to most often is Notre Dame's Manti Te'o.
However, if the Ravens want to find someone who can make an immediate impact, garner the respect of his teammates and play all three downs, every drive, every week, they need to look away from Te'o and to the many other options likely to be available with their No. 32-overall pick.
Te'o's perceived risks are about the football field as much as they are about what's gone on off of it. While the fake-girlfriend scandal that turned Te'o into a very different sort of a household name didn't directly involve him—he didn't construct the lie, after all, though he did spend a little time going along with it when he found out it wasn't true (likely because he didn't know how else to react)—it does affect how interested teams will view his character.
Does it make him gullible? Naive? Less intelligent?
Even if he's none of these, the amount of attention this particular scandal has received could, at the very least, make him a target of ridicule in whatever locker room he finds himself in after the draft.
While there's always a degree of rookie hazing, it's a distraction the Ravens don't need—not months removed from winning a Super Bowl, after the free agency attrition that is about to hit them hard and when it is directed toward a player who is supposed to replace the legendary Ray Lewis. It's not a culture fit.
Beyond that, even if the hoax is completely ignored by some GMs, there are on-field concerns with Te'o that don't make him the right choice for the Ravens in the first round.
Te'o had an excellent 2012 season until he took on the Alabama Crimson Tide offense in the BCS title game. He missed tackles and looked overwhelmed, which didn't do much to help his draft stock, considering the quality of the offenses he's about to face in the NFL. His performance was in stark contrast to what we had seen throughout the course of his 2012 season, with double-digit tackles in six contests and seven interceptions.
The disparity between the regular-season Te'o and the championship-game Te'o deeply calls into question his ability to work as an inside linebacker in the NFL, where he'll be required to stop the run and drop back in coverage as needed. It also drew more attention to his questionable speed and athleticism—two traits he'll need if he's going to be a three-down linebacker at the professional level.
Te'o is football-smart, to be sure, but if that cannot be translated to on-field performance it's not enough to warrant the Ravens, or any team, spending a valuable first-round draft pick on him. He had the opportunity to turn this perception around at the NFL Scouting Combine, and he only managed to disappoint.
He ran his 40-yard dash in 4.82 seconds and had a broad jump of just 113"; his 20-yard shuttle took 4.27 seconds and he elected to not participate in the bench press after suffering a stinger. His 40-yard dash, in particular, raised eyebrows, and certainly not in a good way. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh seemed unimpressed, and perhaps even disappointed, from what he saw from Te'o, perhaps pushing him off of Baltimore's list of first-round potentials.
Even worse is that Te'o ascribed his poor showing at the combine to the entire process being stressful and "very exhausting." He explained how he had four hours of sleep per night while in Indianapolis and that he generally runs the 40 in 4.6 or 4.5 seconds when he's comfortable and well-rested.
While the Scouting Combine isn't supposed to be stress-free for invitees, and while Te'o's experience was in many ways different from his fellow participants, his explanation sounds like excuse-making rather than a vow to look better at his upcoming pro day.
The NFL is stressful.
Things won't calm down for Te'o after his name is called in the draft. In fact, the scrutiny will only increase until he first steps on the field in a regular-season game. If stress can rattle Te'o's focus to the extent that it affects his performance in something as (relatively) simple as running for 40 yards, he may not be well-suited for the rigors of being a starter for the Ravens and trying to fill Lewis' formidable shoes.
A slow-moving linebacker who, as a result of stress, may struggle mightily in coverage and who admittedly crumbled under the pressure of the Scouting Combine does not a first-round draft pick make.
Yes, the Ravens need linebackers both inside and outside, and yes, it's a position they'd be well-served to address with their first-round pick. However, Te'o just doesn't look like he fits the definition of what the Ravens need this year, especially not in the first round.
A first-round pick should be accompanied by as few question marks as possible; though there is always some inherent risk relative to how valuable a first-rounder should be. The reward potential must outweigh the risk.
From the BCS championship game through the Scouting Combine, Te'o simply has not shown that he's the player the Ravens need to take with the No. 32-overall selection.