With an eventful offseason behind him, Manti Te’o embarks on a mission with the San Diego Chargers to show the NFL that he’s a football player and not a sideshow. Until Te’o proves something on the field, he’ll continue to be best known for the fake girlfriend controversy.
The Chargers obviously expect to get a lot out of Te’o as a football player, or they wouldn’t have drafted him with a second-round pick. However, team expectations don’t always jive with fan expectations.
If fans are expecting Te’o to produce like an All-Pro out of the gate, they will probably be disappointed.
It’s not because Te’o isn’t talented or the defense isn’t a good fit for him. It’s because he plays an unheralded position and there are still a few holes in his game. The talented inside linebacker fits perfectly in San Diego, but expectations should be tempered until he has time to develop.
Te’o is lucky that he was drafted by a 3-4 team like the Chargers. Instead of being forced to learn and play middle linebacker for a 4-3 team, Te’o can instead focus on the same things that made him a star at Notre Dame.
Specifically, Te’o doesn’t have to worry about covering additional ground and can play the kind of downhill style that put him on the map in college. Te’o’s ability to read, react and blow up gaps as an inside linebacker will be an asset to the Chargers.
“He’s going to fit in excellent with our 3-4 defense with how we’re going to play our linebackers. He’s going to complement Donald Butler really well,” said Chargers general manager Tom Telesco after the draft (via Michael Gehlken, U-T San Diego).
Te’o will give Donald Butler—the other inside linebacker in San Diego—more freedom to make plays. If Te’o proves to be reliable at blowing up running lanes, he’ll either make the tackle, or Butler will make the tackle as running backs are forced to dodge Te’o.
After a few days of training camp, Te’o is already realizing that running backs at the pro level are more difficult to stop than in college. According to Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego, Te’o stormed into the backfield when running back Ryan Mathews cut back to his left and ran by him.
Despite the result, Te’o appears to be doing what will be expected out of him in 2013, which is to blow up the primary running lane and force the running back to cut back into the teeth of the defense. The hope is that Te’o is able to make some of those plays, and when he doesn't Butler or another defender is in position to make the stop if the running back has to cut back.
Te’o is going to play a healthy amount of snaps in 2013, and he will start. However, Te’o’s role will depend on his ability in coverage. Either Te’o will only be a two-down linebacker as a rookie, or he’ll be able to stay on the field for three downs.
If Te’o’s coverage is good in short zones, as it was in college, he’s going to have the opportunity to stay on the field. Te’o strength is his ability to read and react, which he’s able to do most effectively while dropping in zone coverage.
“Manti was an excellent third-down player at the college level, especially in zones, especially in his football awareness as far as knowing where routes are coming from, knowing where to pass off a route and pick up another,” Telesco told season-ticket holders in May, via to the team's official website. “He has an innate sense of knowing where people are coming from, not only to take on blocks and avoid blocks but as far as pass receivers coming through his zones.”
The expectation is that Te’o will be fine in certain types of pass coverage, but when one linebacker has to come off the field on passing downs, it could be Te’o, depending on the week and the opposing offense. Te’o will clearly have to earn his role on third downs.
“He has the capability of being a three-down linebacker,” Telesco said. “We’ll see if that takes place this year. Third down in this league is a very complicated down. So we’ll see how it plays out. If it’s this year, it’s this year. If it’s next year, it’s next year.”
At very least, Te’o should be a two-down linebacker and record a healthy number of tackles as a rookie, but there will be some growing pains. Te’o often is overly aggressive and will take himself out of plays, which could open up big gains for opposing offenses.
Even if Te’o can stay on the field for three downs, don’t expect a lot of interceptions. The NFL is a different animal than college, and Te’o is going to have a harder time producing big plays against smarter quarterbacks.
A successful season statistically for Te’o would be much like Butler’s first healthy one in 2011. Butler played 16 games, recorded 94 total tackles, forced two fumbles, and had two sacks and one interception. Anything more than Butler’s numbers is probably a bonus that the Chargers couldn’t really have expected from Te’o.
As far as playing time, Butler played in just 63.8 percent of the offensive snaps in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which is probably a good target for Te’o. Since defenses use nickel sets more than they use base sets these days, partaking in roughly 65 percent of the plays would get Te’o’s feet wet in passing situations without throwing him into the fire completely.
Overall, there probably wasn’t a better place for Te’o to land than with the Chargers. The opportunity, scheme fit, role and the environment in San Diego all seem to fit Te’o, which should enable him to eventually maximize his talent.