You've heard the argument by now. After his terrible BCS Championship game, there is no way Manti Te'o, the stand-out linebacker from Notre Dame who wowed so many during the past two seasons, will be drafted in the top ten of this year's draft. And after they would have given an arm and a leg to snag him up if he fell to the Steelers just a week ago, Steelers fans here and elsewhere are starting to wonder if the team should pull the trigger on Te'o at 17. Well, in my opinion, they should, and without hesitation. I'll use the next few paragraphs to explain why.
First, a disclaimer: I don't claim to be a college football expert. While I would like to think of myself as pretty football-savvy after years of Steelers fandom, I don't watch the game at the College level enough to have an intimate knowledge of every player that will potentially be drafted like some others on this site. As such, I base my knowledge in this post and others on the eye test, as well as the multiple opinions and articles that are out there. Feel free to correct me if I am making assertions that you think are wrong in the comments below.
So why should the Steelers draft Manti Te'o at #17 in this years draft? For three reasons: Positional Need, Character and Leadership, and Strategic Potential. Allow me to lay these out in more detail:
Coming into the 2013 off-season, what do the Steelers have at Inside Linebacker? A budding star in Lawrence Timmons, who will hopefully excel in black and gold for years. Beyond that, they have an aging Larry Foote, whose issues in pass protection are well known and who won't get more athletic, Sean Spence, and Stevenson Sylvester. After being drafted in the third round last year, Spence impressed many with his work habits and speed, but at the same time questioned whether his lack of size would allow him to ever be more than a nickel linebacker. Add to that his serious injury in September, may limit his speed in the future. Sylvester has not impressed in limited action. He and Foote will both be free agents in March. In short, the Steelers have Timmons and a lot of question marks at Inside Linebacker. Getting one high in the draft that could start next to Timmons would alleviate a lot of those worries.
Character and Leadership
Remember when James Farrior manned the inside linebacker spot as the unquestioned leader of the Steelers defense? Foote has done an adequate job calling the defensive plays in his absence, but his age and impending free agency make him a stop-gap solution at best. One thing often overlooked in my opinion is that even in his sixth year in the league and after signing a $50 million contract extension a year and a half ago, Timmons still does not call defensive plays. Whether that is because of his inability to do so or because LeBeau likes him to roam around much like Troy Polamalu and doesn't want to attach that added responsibility to him, I don't know enough about to speculate; the fact is that the Steelers will need a new signal caller on defense after Foote is gone.
Enter Manti Te'o, who has been the unquestioned leader of a team that defied all expectations by going to the BCS Cahmpionship this season. Forget for a minute that ugly blow-out loss against Alabama - who would have thought before the season that Notre Dame would go undefeated the entire season? And their players and coaches, especially on defense, have pointed to Te'o as one of the main reasons. Clearly, he has the smarts and leadership ability needed to call defensive plays. But it goes beyond that. Remember all the recent articles about how the Steelers seem to lack locker room leadership since the likes of Farrior and Hines Ward retired? Read this article and tell me that Te'o doesn't have the potential to go into that locker room and establish himself as a leader sooner rather than later. He has as much potential as anyone to become our next Farrior.
Strategic Potential and Talent Fit
I think that the first two points are pretty agreeable even to those who are questioning whether Te'o would be a good fit for the Steelers at #17. After all, it's not his character or the Steelers problems at Inside Linebacker that changed with the BCS Title Game, but his individual performance. Well, in my opinion, one game does not make or break a player. Focusing on one game against what is clearly the best college team in the country does not negate two stellar season, during which he showed himself to be a quality if not star NFL player.
Consider his strengths and weaknesses compared to Timmons and Spence, the two people he will likely play next to if drafted by the Steelers. As mentioned above, Timmons is at his best on the weak side, roaming free and shooting the gaps. Judging by post-draft and mini camp interviews last year, Dick LeBeau sees Spence as a weak-side linebacker as well. So who will play on the strong side? Why, your 6-2, 255 rookie first round pick of course! Timmons has also markedly improved his run defense this season, while Te'o is especially lethal in the passing game. Sounds like a good inside combination to me!
And think of the possibilities for LeBeau when it comes to playing all three on the field together. As I mentioned in Neal's frontpage post, I am imagining a 'big nickel' package with a two man line consisting of any of Heyward/Hood/Keisel/McLendon, our two starting outside linebackers to rush and set the edges, and Spence, Te'o, and Timmons in the middle. Since all three should do well defending the pass, the Steelers could improve their defense on likely pass situation while not losing much strength should the opponent run. This would be especially effective against teams like New England, who like running their multiple TE sets.
Think of the possibilities for LeBeau. You can rush four (line and 2 OLBS), dropping your ILBs into coverage. You can blitz Spence or Timmons inside. Or you can stunt both of them, while Te'o drops back into the short zone. All of the linemen are athletic enough to stand pre-snap, making it even more confusing for the quarterback. Drafting Te'o makes this athletic 'big nickel' package possible.
People are now pointing to Te'o's BCS Championship game and the fact that he won't have elite measurables at the combine to justify him dropping in the draft, but he won't fall far. He may not be the sure-fire first-year star that many dreamt he would be as a top 5 prospect, but he should be a very productive player in the NFL for many years. Combine that with the positional and leadership needs the Steelers defense currently have, and I think they should take him in a heartbeat if he falls to 17 in April. Feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments! :)