Manti Te'o's series of unfortunate events is all over the news. The story has transcended sports, garnering front page attention. The details continue to pour out from the media as fans and gossip lovers try to make sense of it all. Rather than rehash the hoax or Te'o's role in the events, which would be speculative at best, there is another important headline: the potential free fall of his draft stock.
Te'o was, and may still be, the consensus and most highly-touted inside linebacker the NFL Draft has seen in many years, perhaps going back all the way back to Patrick Willis. The drop in his value began the night of the BCS Championship Game. The 21-year-old, possibly still reeling from learning that the love of his life was nothing more a cruel joke, performed well below expectations. Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit, the announcers of the game, noted on multiple occasions that Te'o was struggling. There were missed tackles, blown coverages, and the scoreboard told a story as well. Alabama cruised to victory and Notre Dame finished a wonderful season on a terrible final note.
Te'o, the Heisman Memorial Trophy runner-up, was suddenly mortal. After one of the best defensive seasons of the BCS era, if not the best, the raw talent of the linebacker from Hawaii was in doubt. He could not take on blockers. He struggled wrapping up Alabama RB Eddie Lacy, a well-built power back who carved up the Fighting Irish defense. There was a missed assignment in coverage in the red zone. Almost nothing went as planned.
That was the mainstream narrative. Digging deeper though, there were already rumblings and grumblings among NFL executives, coaches, and scouts questioning Te'o's athleticism. Inside linebackers not only must be stout against the run, but they must also be able to stay on the field for all three downs. Playing on third-down requires ILBs to play in coverage, a skill which requires fluid hips, great footwork, and the ability to keep up with both tight ends and running backs. Te'o is not slow, but various reported 40-yard dash times have him around a 4.75. That time is sufficient, yet there are still lingering questions which will need to be addressed at the NFL Scouting Combine and any evaluations between now and the draft.
While the title game undermined his on-field talent, the controversy calls into question the best attribute Te'o appeared to offer: his character.
There is simply no way of knowing the full extent of his involvement in this hoax. It's entirely possible we never will. Scouting reports, without fail, always cited Te'o's character and leadership. His play made him great, but his intangibles made him special. His success in the face of coping with the loss of his grandmother and "girlfriend" appeared to strengthen the will of an already mythically-talented linebacker.
The ensuing controversy casts a long shadow of doubt. One anonymous scout quoted by the Daily News summarized it best, "This is just bizarre, very bizarre."
Te'o, in a matter of weeks, has gone from a Top 10 pick to a potential Day 2 selection. There are still three months until the 2013 NFL Draft and each team will have an opportunity to talk to Manti before coming to a decision about his pro potential. It is vital for him to be forthright in interviews, both behind the scenes and with the media. Football fans have already proven that they can forgive and forget, assuming a player is willing to seek out and earn a second chance. Now is the time for Te'o to rebuild his image and reaffirm those intangible qualities, both for the fans and himself.