Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why Manti Te'o Will Be The Steal of the 2013 NFL Draft

Every February, the NFL Scouting Combine appears and reminds us why it’s the dumbest, stupidest, most overhyped sporting event of the year.

The combine reveals to us, well, nothing. We know who is fast. We know who is the most athletic. While it has value for teams to get measurable, it shouldn’t be a driving factor for anyone’s draft pick. Every single player drafted in this year’s NFL Draft will have a wealth game film available.

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If you were to choose your next starting linebacker, would you look at 40+ films of game tape or base it on a 40-yard dash time? Unless you’re the Raiders, that’s a stupid question.

Yet every February, we are treated to a cause célèbre that every analyst are forced to debate, dissect and devour for hours upon hours – it’s February, the sports calendar isn’t exactly littered with big events unless you like watching Danica Patrick try to win a race.

This year, the all-encompassing, all-consuming Manti Te’o took center stage again as the combine veered from its usual position as mere annoyance to full-blown circus sideshow. His first press conference attracted more reporters than the usual Presidential press conference, and there’s no attempt at a joke there. His sexual preference didn’t just become a headline; the fact of whether or not teams would ask about his sexual preference became a headline.

Then, as if to complete the fall from grace, he ran an average-to-slow 40-yard dash.

Leading up to the Alabama game, Manti Te’o was a Heisman finalist, a likely Top 10 pick and the leader who brought Notre Dame back to its place as college football royalty.

I don’t need to rehash the fake girlfriend scandal. I would guess about a billion words, including these, have been typed and tweeted about it. From the beginning, starting with the infamous “80%” declaration from a Deadspin “source” that Te’o was in on the scam, the haters have been ready to pounce.

There is no doubt Te’o shoulders some of the blame for how this played out publicly. He lied to his father about seeing his “girlfriend.” He foolishly embellished the story for reporters, who were lapping up this 21st century revival of the Notre Dame myth with joy. He found out before the Alabama game but waited too long to reveal and, instead, let Deadspin control its early path. He lied.

In the end, I believe that Te’o was young, naïve and duped. Is it a good look? No. But it doesn’t make him any worse of a football player.

However, so much of Te’o’s story was built around this myth – forgetting that his grandmother did die during the season – and he did so playing for a University that most of America can’t stand. My father went to Notre Dame and I have a family full of Domers. I am well-aware of the “We’re Notre Dame, and you’re not” attitude. For 20 years, no one really cared. Then Te’o, his story and his team stole headlines all fall and the Notre Dame hate returned.

None of this explains why Te’o has suddenly plummeted down draft boards, at least in the eyes of analysts, in the past few months.

He is still an All-American linebacker. He still started for 4 years at Notre Dame. He still led his team to an undefeated regular season. He still led the Notre Dame revival. He still made big plays at big moments. He is still about to be a very, very good NFL player.

The Alabama game was not Te’o’s finest moment but it seems a little harsh to place the entire blame for that debacle on him. The game plan and coaching was atrocious. The overall skill level wasn’t the same. There were too many off-field issues, from Brian Kelly’s short-sighted decision to interview for the Eagles job right after to the fact that Te’o knew about the scam and it’s impossible to think that didn’t have an impact.

The slow 40 time was the inevitable crescendo to this Te’o hate as talking heads like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay can point to something and explain why he’s not the prospect we thought he was.

Here’s the deal, as someone who has watched far too much Notre Dame football over the past four years – Manti Te’o is the real deal.

He hits hard.

He plays fast.

He has good instincts.

He is always in the right place at the right time.

He leads by example.

He is an excellent linebacker and the best defensive player to come through Notre Dame since the Lou Holtz era.

He will likely scoot down NFL draft boards, like a parade of superstars before him who came into the league carrying baggage, whether real or imagined. Warren Sapp. Aaron Rodgers. Randy Moss. Dan Marino. Those are just a few of the stars who slid down far past where they should’ve been drafted.

This April, it will happen again. Some team is going to take the risk, assume the media onslaught and draft Manti Te’o.

That team will be very glad it did. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed it’s the Jets, haters be damned.

Besides, the New York Post will likely need to fill its Tebow void on the back page this fall.

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