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Manti Te’o; Draft sleeper or the next A.J. Hawk?

Is Te'o ready for today's NFL?

Is Te’o ready for today’s NFL?

What a difference two months can make. In one second, you could be the first “defense-only” college football player to win the Heisman and sure-fire Top 5 NFL draft pick. And in the next, your draft stock is falling faster than Lamar Odom’s post Lakers career. And let’s put aside the whole Lennay Kekua girlfriend hoax fiasco. Yes I know that character is a big red flag for most NFL teams and it does play a role in Manti’s fall from grace. But this piece is intended to compare two successful college football players who shared a lot more qualities than you think. What spectrum of NFL ready does Manti compare to? A prototype MLB prospect that he was once billed as? Or maybe closer to A.J. Hawk, top 5 can’t miss prospect who turned out……. well, just average is stretching it. It’s all part of the coin flip that NFL personnel people have to figure out. Where does Manti Te’o project as an NFL talent?

Let’s begin, Manti Te’o and A.J. Hawk. Both played for major college programs in Notre Dame and Ohio State, who at the time, were in the national spotlight as championship contending teams. Both had great success through their stints at their respective programs. The both earned All-American honors and both finished top 6 in Heisman voting their senior year(Manti finished 2nd in 2012). They played the same position, Mike linebacker in the 4-3, aka middle linebacker. Both even have the same stature, 6’1″ around 245. Except for the nationality difference, maybe they could be brothers.

Up until the BCS title game and subsequent hoax that blew up in Te’o’s face, he was being projected as a top 5 prospect and even top 5 pick. A.J. Hawk was the same thing. In a draft that had superior athletes like Mario Williams, Reggie Bush and Vince Young, all who had incredibly high ceilings as players. Hawk, who had the potential become a franchise linebacker, but instead was tabbed by many as the safest of all those selections. A.J. ended up being drafted 5th overall by the Green Bay Packers, in part because the Packers couldn’t miss on this draft selection. They went the safe route.

The very same things are being said about Te’o; play-maker, high football IQ, instinctive, safe, low risk and had the potential to be a franchise MLB……….. And then he played Alabama, and was outright exposed by a team full of NFL ready talent on the offensive end. Now I understand that the weight of the world was probably on his shoulders that night with this hoax story about to break at any moment. And if you think it shouldn’t affect elite athletes, just ask LeBron James what happened in Game 5 against Boston in 2010. He mentally checked out and he played some of the worst basketball of his life, it can happen to anyone. But Manti did have a second chance, the NFL Combine. He had an entire season of elite play at the MLB position on tape for scouts to pour over. One caveat though, although he did play extremely well throughout the regular season and on the nationally televised games, it wasn’t against the SEC. The triple A to the NFL’s major leagues. One game could be overlooked against NFL talent and speed, but he had to redeem himself in Indianapolis with his “measureables”. That meant nailing his bench press, vertical jump, board jump, 3-cone drill, 20 yard shuttle, 10 yard split and the ever so important, 40 yard dash.

Here’s a look at both linebackers results at the NFL Combine, courtesy of the Combine themselves;

Pre-draft measurables : A.J. Hawk

Pre-draft measurables
Ht Wt 40-yd dash 10-yd split 20-yd split 20-ss 3-cone Vert Broad BP
6 ft 1 in 248 lb 4.59 s 1.56 s 2.72 s 3.96 s 6.82 s 40 in 9 ft 7 in 24 reps
40 from Ohio State Pro Day, all others from NFL Combine.

Pre-draft measurables : Manti Te’o

Pre-draft measureables
Ht Wt Arm length Hand size 40-yd dash 10-yd split 20-yd split 20-ss 3-cone Vert Broad BP
6 ft 1 ¼ in 241 lb 32 ½ in 9 ½ in 4.82 s 1.62 s 4.27 s 7.13 s 33 in 9 ft 5 in
All values from NFL Combine

As you see here, Manti Te’o did not test well. A.J. Hawk out performed Te’o in all the timed test. Also remember the fact that Hawk used his 40 time from his Pro Day (that will be brought up later for Manti). Where Te’o really failed to measure up was in the “athleticism” drills; the 3 cone (used to measure agility, lateral quickness and fluidity), the 20 yard shuttle (measures short area speed and explosion) and of course the benchmark for true speed, the 40 yard dash.

I bring this point up because the way the NFL is going. A.J. out-performed Te’o in all important tests. Hawk had just as much success as Te’o did on the collegiate level. So Hawk, top 5 pick, should have been able to have the same success on the NFL level. Unfortunately for Hawk, he came a little after his time. If you have ever heard the saying,”man that athlete was before his time”. It means that he showcased skills and athleticism that the league had not yet seen or could compete with, say like Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor etc. Well A.J. is the complete opposite of that, and I think Manti will fall into that category as well. Hawk probably would’ve been a multiple pro bowl linebacker had he come into the league in 1996 as opposed to 2006. The NFL is just too quick for a guy like Hawk. He came into the league as a 4-3 OLB, had a great rookie year but then slowly regressed as the league got quicker and faster. Even when Green Bay moved him to Inside-Linebacker position in the 3-4 defense, Hawk had a renascence for a year but then was quickly exposed. As of now in 2013, Hawk is a one down linebacker, in the base 3-4. Once the offense forces the defense to go to sub packages, Hawk cannot be relied to cover the ever evolving scat backs (like Darren Sproles, LaMichael James) and the ultimate chess piece in this day’s NFL, the tight end. He really has no chance to cover the likes of Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham (in his defense, few can).

Vernon burns A.J. up the seam

Vernon burns A.J. up the seam

Just for comparisons sake, here’s the measurables of a recent Top 10 drafted linebacker:

Patrick Willis-2007 Combine

Pre-draft measureables
Ht Wt 40-yd dash 10-yd split 20-yd split 20-ss 3-cone Vert Broad BP Wonderlic
6 ft 1¼ in 242 lb 4.51 s 1.53 s 2.62 s 4.46 s 7.23 s 39 in 9 ft 11 in 22 reps 12
All values from the 2007 NFL Combine

Willis is your prototype MLB in today’s NFL (3-Down Linebacker)

So where does this leave Manti? He is still considered a potential fringe 1st round pick, although that hinges on his performance at his Pro Day. If a team is picking a linebacker in the first round, he needs to have the ability to be a 3-down linebacker, in essence, he won’t need to be taken off the field because he is a liability to the defense, like what A.J. Hawk has experienced. Manti will be counted on to first and fore-most call and the lead the defense (no concern there). But he’ll need the speed to hit the run gaps and fill the hole quickly. Have the ability to cover backs out of the backfield. And be able to cover the tight end on crossing routes and seam routes. So far his measureables show a lack of elite athleticism to properly do that on a consistent basis.

Now while Manti did not live up to Hawks’ measureables, but he did out-perform Willis in a couple area’s. The Combine is not a pass or fail result for most draft prospects, ask any NFL scout and they will tell you the majority of weight is put on the scouting tape of games played. Football isn’t played in spandex shorts and Under Armour shirts, it’s played by technique and instinct. The NFL uses a term “game speed”, where a prospect might lack the measureables of timed tests, but when put into a game, the football skills take over and they play faster than they test. As of now, that is Manti Te’o’s only saving grace sans his Pro Day at Notre Dame. He NEEDS to improve that 40 time to a low 4.7, anything in a 4.6 range and you can expect him to shoot back up that draft board in the mid-first round.

My opinion, he’ll be a serviceable MLB talent, but not what he was billed at during his 2012 Heisman campaign. Manti is what he is, he came after his time. He would’ve been a perfect fit in the 1990s covering lumbering tight ends and chasing down bigger backs. In today’s NFL, I think you’ll see what we all saw against Alabama, a player that is a step too slow. Just like A.J. Hawk, not a bad player, but not a good one either.