Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
A rough national title performance drops the otherwise impressive linebacker in post-college season projections.
To suggest Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o was underwhelming in the Fighting Irish's savage beating at the hands of Alabama's vastly superior team is an understatement.
Is it a fatal wound to the Defensive Player of the Year's hopes to be taken in the top half of the draft?
It seems early projections - which are as reliable as the weather - suggest that to be the case. The popular mock draft web site WalterFootball.com has Te'o falling to the Steelers at No. 17 overall. And depending on his Senior Bowl and Combine performances, could fall all the way out of the first round.
The fit makes sense - a future defensive leader from the linebacker position, a college player with a high level of production coupled with a good all-around skill set and high character marks. At this point, though, Te'o is going to be the walking example of the cliche "you're only as good as your last game."
And Te'o's last game made him look like he wasn't even the best player on his own team's position unit, let alone the best player in the game.
Time eventually breaks that Last Game stigma down. If he works well in the upcoming Senior Bowl, and has an outstanding Combine workout, those intangibles - the intelligence, college production and character - will boost in terms of importance. Whether those things stick, though, will come down to one thing; how fast does he run at the Combine?
Carolina's Luke Kuechly was another dominant college linebacker who huge production in his time at Boston College. Kuechly was the ninth overall pick by Carolina because that production was bolstered by a blistering 4.58 40-time at the Combine.
Te'o does not look at all like a guy with that kind of speed. He plays smarter than he plays fast, with little wasted movement and outstanding positioning in coverage.
But anyone who says the best players are the first players taken in order in the NFL Draft doesn't know much about it. The draft is about elitism. It's about rarity. For as productive as Te'o was at Notre Dame, if he runs in the 4.7 range, he's not going in the first half of the first round, and could fall out of it entirely. That doesn't mean a team drafting him isn't going to get a good football player (albeit average to below average speed for the position), it means he does not have that rare physical trait that separates a first rounder from a mid-rounder.
It helps the rich get richer, too, because talented teams that could use a heady linebacker who can cover well in short and hook-to-curl zones could benefit by taking him with a late first round pick.
But if he's not clocking high-end speed, he's not likely to be taken as high as 17.
If he does, though, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Steelers packing their inside linebacker position with Te'o, joining the explosively athletic Lawrence Timmons and the speedy Sean Spence for the future.