Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o doesn't have to look too deep into the NFL's legion of linebackers to find a few examples of why the 40-yard dash doesn't have to be a make-or-break assessment of a player's capabilities.
In fact, the NFL is littered with once "too slow" linebackers who now start and contribute.
Brandon Spikes and Vontaze Burfict both ran over five seconds at the NFL combine. Both are good football players.
Rey Maualuga clocked in at 4.86 seconds. He just re-signed with the Cincinnati Bengals on a two-year deal.
James Laurinaitis, currently one of the better comparisons to Te'o in the NFL, ran the drill in 4.81 seconds. He has 100 or more tackles in all four of his professional seasons.
Sean Lee, Curtis Lofton and Brian Cushing were each finishers in the 4.7-4.8 range. All three could be considered in the top-20 of inside linebackers.
Mason Foster and K.J. Wright, two current NFL starters from the 2011 draft class, ran the 40 in 4.75 seconds.
Strong criticism of Te'o came on strong following the 2013 NFL Combine, when the Notre Dame linebacker ran the 40 in a disappointing 4.82 seconds. Tuesday at Notre Dame's Pro Day, Te'o shaved a few hundredths of a second off that time.
According to ESPN's Todd McShay, Te'o finished at 4.75 seconds in his first run, and 4.71 in his second. Certainly not blazing times, but improvements nonetheless.
Straight-line speed will always have importance for the draft process, especially in a game that continues to become more and more wide open. But in assessing what kind of impact Te'o can have on the pro game, elite speed has never been one of his strengths.
His scouting report, believe it or not, has stayed mostly consistent throughout the process.
- Ideal size, strength for the position
- Strong tackler, with the build and technique to consistently get ball-carriers to the ground
- Hustles to the ball on every snap
- Strong on-field communicator
- Anticipation and awareness in mirroring the running back
- Steadily improving in pass defense
- Somewhat stiff in the hips
- Lacks top-end speed, recovery speed
- Question marks regarding ability to consistently shed blockers
While maybe not a "weakness," per se, Te'o's embarrassing catfishing scandal is also a part of his overall evaluation, although its translation to the football side is mostly nil.
But overall, the book on Te'o was finished well before he ran a 4.82 at the NFL combine or shaved that time Tuesday at his Pro Day.
So just how is Manti Te'o going to succeed as an NFL linebacker?
By sticking to what made him an impact player at Notre Dame.
No, Te'o may never be an elite athlete who can cover Rob Gronkowski in space or chase down Jamaal Charles from behind. Instead of playing all three downs, Te'o may have to concede to the fact that coming off in obvious passing situations will be a part of his professional package.
But running an average 40-time—and that's exactly what his averaged-out time of roughly 4.75 is, go back and check the last 5-7 years of times from the inside linebacker position—isn't going to be the difference between Te'o being a very capable NFL player or becoming a big-name bust.
Te'o will either succeed or fail based on what he already brings to the table.
An NFL team can still feel very confident that they are getting an instinctual and highly-productive college linebacker. He's going to be a sure tackler who's always around the football, and a likely on-field leader who directs and positions others.
And maybe, just maybe, the athleticism most continue to harp on isn't as big of a deal as it's being made out to be.
At the combine, Te'o's 20-yard shuttle time of 4.27 seconds ranked as one of the best, and that's arguably a better indicator of what kind of read-and-react speed Te'o will have at the next level. A good inside linebacker needs to be quick in short, compact spaces, not over 40 yards.
Players such as Spikes, Burfict and Laurinitis were docked big points in NFL war rooms because of the 40-yard dash. None of the three were drafted in the first round, but each has carved out a very productive role in their respective defense.
Te'o can certainly do the same.
The Notre Dame star isn't going to come into the professional game and dominate athletically, like say an Arthur Brown or Alec Ogletree potentially could.
But how the base of his football package develops—the instincts, tackling, awareness, production—will ultimately be more important in whether or not Te'o can put his name in the same category as others who have bucked the speed trend and become productive NFL linebackers.
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