It was only five months ago that ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. called for the Kansas City Chiefs, the holders of the No. 1 overall pick in this April’s draft, to select Manti Te’o with their first round selection.
“There’s no Andrew Luck, no RG3, no quarterback, what they desperately need,” Kiper said. ”They have to think about, OK, you have the two outside linebackers, you don’t need Jarvis Jones. You bring a Manti Te’o in next to Derrick Johnson, the veteran, all of a sudden that front seven, particularly that linebacking core, would be arguably one of the best in the NFL, potentially.”
In hindsight, the comment is most certainly laughable, as there is no chance of the Chiefs doing exactly that, but also makes the mind wonder just how good Te’o really is. If one is to believe the current state of the media, Te’o's something like a tebow-esque linebacker. But that’s far from the truth according to the tape, which shows a good (not great) linebacker who has the ability to impact games with his rugged run defense and instincts in pass defense. It also shows a guy who might be slightly overrated and perhaps not the best player at his position in the class, but still a good defender who can impact teams and is worthy of first round consideration.
Consider how quickly Te’o reads this run play against the Michigan State Spartans. The Golden Domers are aligned in a 4-3 under front, which features their star at his usual middle linebacker spot. On this play, the Spartans will be running a “power” concept to their right. This concept consists of a pulling guard from the backside that leads the running back to the second level.
When the ball is snapped, the backside guard does just that as he moves away from the line of scrimmage and across the formation. Simultaneously, Te’o is making a “low-hat” read, which indicates that it’s going to be a run, and he’s immediately coming forward.
Where it gets interesting is when Te’o is at the line of scrimmage. The pulling guard may have pulled too wide on this play, which skews the result, and made Te’o more effective than he really is. However, it still shows how quickly he processes the game when it comes to run defense. It shows his understanding of simple but important reads that not all linebackers consistently make. This is an area of Te’o's game that he excels in, and he’s probably only second in the draft to LSU’s Kevin Minter in terms of his instincts based off of what I’ve seen.
An area of Te’o's game that has seen some criticism the last couple of years is his pass defense. He improved from his junior season to his senior year, but he still isn’t the most fluid of athletes, and he tends to be overly aggressive despite showing instincts that enable him to be around the ball frequently. He’s also better when the receiver is in front of him than behind him.
Generally speaking, this applies to every player due to a clearer vision of his surroundings. But there are defenders who struggle more than others when their eyes are on the receiver instead of the ball. An example of his ability to play the ball when it’s front of him comes at the 3:34 mark in the video below. It shows how well Te’o covers the shallow crossing route with range — which he has enough of — and his read-and-react skills.
Overall, he’s a good prospect at the linebacker position for the next level. He’s skilled in run defense — even though he struggled against Alabama (who didn’t?) — and is solid while defending the pass. He’s not a great athlete, but he’s worthy of first round consideration based off of his skills.