The draft stock for Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o appears to be leveling out near the end of the first round.
According to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, there remains "no way" that Te'o reaches the last pick in the first round, which is currently held by the Baltimore Ravens. Kiper gave that opinion to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun during a conference call Wednesday.
Kiper believes the Ravens will eventually snag an inside linebacker in the first three rounds of the 2013 NFL draft, but the presence of teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Chicago Bears present barriers to Baltimore having the ability to take Te'o.
Kiper isn't the only one with that opinion.
ESPN's Adam Schefter has maintained throughout the draft process that Te'o will be selected in the first round, even after he posted disappointing 40-times at the NFL combine in Indianapolis in late February.
Manti Te'o does not make out of the first round.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 27, 2013
Late last month, Schefter said on NFL Live (via Rotoworld) that "most people around the league don't believe he will get out of the first round of the draft," and "midway through the first round" is a good starting point for where Te'o could come off the board.
Kiper, a respected draft analyst, and Schefter, a respected NFL insider, appear to be on the same page with Te'o. Where there's this much smoke, there's usually fire, and that should be the case for Te'o.
So which teams make the most sense for Te'o in the first round?
Here's a breakdown of his best fits:
Two first-round picks (No. 23 and 25) and an obvious need at inside linebacker should make the Vikings one of the favorites to select Te'o.
Minnesota lost starter Jasper Brinkley in free agency, but he likely needed to be replaced inside regardless. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked Brinkley as their No. 50 overall inside linebacker last season.
A recent trend of obtaining Notre Dame players (Harrison Smith, Kyle Rudolph, Robert Blanton, John Sullivan, John Carlson) also increases the likelihood of Te'o landing in the Twin Cities.
If there's a first-round favorite for Te'o, it's likely the Vikings. He'd be an instant starter on an improving defense.
New York Giants
The Giants have a gaping hole at middle linebacker, especially after Chase Blackburn—last season's starter—bolted New York for Carolina in free agency.
Mark Herzlich would next in line, but there is reason enough to worry if he can handle the starting job on a team that still has Super Bowl aspirations. In the two games Herzlich started last season, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave him negative grades.
The Giants pick at No. 19, so they'll likely be the first to have a legitimate decision to make on Te'o.
He'd be a plug-and-play starter at middle linebacker in New York, but general manager Jerry Reese has tended to wait until the middle to late rounds to look at the linebacker position. If there's ever been a year to buck that trend, it might be 2013, when several top middle linebackers could be available for the Giants, including Te'o.
A new era has begun in Chicago, where eventual Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher is a free agent, and former Denver Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams has been signed to replace him. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Williams was selected to fill the hole Urlacher left as the starter inside.
Does that reality rule out Te'o as a possibility for the Bears at No. 20? Probably.
#ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper believes that Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o will be drafted by the Chicago Bears.— D. Orlando Ledbetter (@AJCFalcons) April 3, 2013
But signing a 30-year-old linebacker who played just seven games in 2012 shouldn't be considered an end-all to the Bears' problems inside, and Te'o would provide Chicago with much needed long-term security at the position.
While not the athlete Urlacher was coming out of college, Te'o does have the same kind of natural instincts that made Urlacher into one of the game's best defenders. Maybe the fit is too good to happen, especially with Williams now in Chicago.
Speaking of replacing defensive legends, the Ravens have one of the more gaping holes at inside linebacker after the retirement of eventual Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. But losing Lewis wasn't the Ravens' only departure inside, as Dannell Ellerbe left town for big bucks in Miami this offseason.
Now, the Ravens must look to the draft to fill the holes.
Kiper doesn't believe Te'o will get to No. 32, and that's a reasonable enough assessment given the needs of teams in front of them.
If Te'o does, however, the Ravens might have a difficult time passing on him. He's the same kind of thumper inside that Lewis was for so many years, and you'd have to believe that landing in a Super Bowl locker room would help smooth out any of the off-the-field question marks Te'o has.
Four teams in the mid-to-late first round have needs at inside linebacker, and Te'o appears to be a quality fit for each. Te'o might not be a perfect first-round prospect, but the idea of him landing in the first 32 picks certainly isn't as crazy as some might think.