Before the 2012 college football season began, NFL scouts had questions about Manti Te’o. Before Te’o struggled through “adversity” while leading Notre Dame to a near-perfect season, before the Tide rolled Te’o's Irish in the BCS National Championship Game back on Jan. 7, even before all of this girlfriend hoax nonsense was first reported on Wednesday, Te’o's draft stock was in constant flux. Now, it’s even more volatile.
Te’o is an extremely talented athlete and a very strong linebacker, who has long been viewed as a first-round lock in the NFL draft. He finished the season with 111 tackles, ranked second in the nation with seven interceptions, was a finalist for the Heisman (although how much of his “story” fed into that we don’t know) and won nearly every defensive award imaginable in college football.
Yet, even as one of the most productive linebackers in recent memory, Te’o still isn’t a definitive top-10 or even top-20 pick like other such defensive playmakers that came before. Now, this whole deceiving, naïve, dishonest, or however you want to describe the situation could make his eventual draft position even lower than the already uncertain projections.
This isn’t a first for the NFL. Red flags pop up all the time during the draft process. Drug and alcohol problems are typically a cause for concern. Criminal records are researched and personal lives are vetted thoroughly. A player’s score on the cognitive-based Wonderlic test even factors into teams’ ultimate decisions.
These external factors can be seen as recently as the 2012 draft, when Te’o's former teammate Michael Floyd, an extremely productive college receiver and highly-coveted prospect, dropped to No. 13 because of concerns over multiple drunk driving violations. Heck, Patriots rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard plummeted all the way to the seventh round due to an unfortunate pre-draft bar fight, and he’s been good enough to start for the Patriots in their AFC divisional playoff game last weekend. So, such concerns obviously weigh heavily in the draft evaluation process.
Even beyond the typical — and that term is used loosely — arrests and drunk driving records, though, the NFL doesn’t seem to take kindly to liars. There’s no proof that Te’o is lying yet, and both he and Notre Dame are adamantly denying his participation in this wildly confusing and captivating hoax. But, knowingly or not, some of his statements about meeting Lennay Kekua, who apparently isn’t real, at Stanford and their interactions just cannot be true. Such grand delusions and naivety can be viewed almost just as negatively in the draft process, too.
The knocks on Te’o as a player have always been whether he can stick with top-end running backs and his ability to get off bigger, more physical blockers along the line — both which he struggled with against Alabama in the title game. The thing keeping him so high on many teams’ lists, though, was his seemingly impeccable character and work ethic. Now, the effort isn’t and will never be the question, but Te’o's once-immaculate perception is now tainted.
There are still plenty of teams around the NFL that could use a super talented, potentially game-changing player on defense. Te’o will get drafted and likely even still go in the first round. However, he may have cost himself a few spots on the draft board and definitely some cash from both contracts and endorsements.
If he is merely the unfortunate victim of a terrible plot, as he and the university continue to claim, then that will come out in the draft process and maybe he can save face and some value. But you can count on this continuing to be a major story at the combine in February and something that follows Te’o into the green room — if he even gets invited now — and well beyond.