Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o talks after he received a sportsmanship… (Joe Raymond / Associated…)
Being an NFL linebacker means being able to disguise schemes and fool offenses. But if Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was involved in the bizarre ruse of his fictitious dead girlfriend — as a perpetrator, rather than a pawn — it could have a significant impact on his draft status.
Teams are keeping a close eye on the situation, tracking Te'o's level of involvement, and surely will want a detailed retelling from him at the scouting combine in February.
Te'o is widely regarded as the top middle linebacker in this draft class, and, before the scandal, was projected by many experts to be chosen in the top half of the first round — and at a position that doesn't typically go that early.
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"We need to dig in and find out what happened," an NFL team scout told The Times on Thursday. "Why didn't he just step up and say something? I understand he was completely embarrassed, but it does raise some questions regarding his maturity regarding relationships, emotional stability, naivete, and just social awareness."
And that's if Te'o was merely fooled, rather than being a participant in the hoax. Being the quarterback of the defense is more than a physical job, it's a cerebral one, and the ability to be tricked in such a way could be a red flag for teams. It's one of those teams, after all, that would be investing millions of dollars in him.
"He's a pretty smart kid," said the scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and revealing information about his team's viewpoint. "But to allow this to happen and then affect him so much emotionally during the season is concerning. I don't think he's a bad kid, so I wouldn't want to hold it against him. If he wasn't in on it, and it was just a mean hoax, I feel bad for him and his family.
"If he was involved and tried to cover it up or hide something, it would be alarming, and he could take a plunge as a result."
One of the stranger aspects of the Te'o situation is that his character was regarded among his strongest attributes — and still will be, as long as he wasn't aware of the hoax. This wasn't a player who was regarded as a character risk, or even a player of average character. His reputation was sterling.
"It's like as if it were 110 degrees out there in California, and tomorrow you're at 10 below," said longtime scouting expert Gil Brandt, chief talent evaluator for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-88. "I've never seen anything like this."
Brandt filled out a mock draft Monday and had Te'o as his 19th-ranked player, going to the New York Giants.
"Probably people weren't as sold on him as you might think they are, for a guy who's gotten as much publicity and him being on a good team," Brandt said. "The difference between his play during the season and his play in the championship game is off the charts."
As much as anything, Brandt said, Te'o's stock was damaged by his performance in a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game last week.
"The guy had seven interceptions during the season," Brandt said. "That's unheard of for a linebacker. He wasn't within 15 yards of the ball in the national championship game.
"I've never seen anybody change so dramatically from a good player to a space cadet."
Rob Rang, draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, said he still projects Te'o as a first-round pick but wouldn't be surprised if he slides into the second, based on his most recent game.
"Over the course of his career, he's played at a first-round level," Rang said. "But there's no doubt that's the biggest game of his life and he played as poorly as I've ever seen him. He could fall out of the first round based on that game alone.
"It wasn't just speed that was a problem, but his open-field tackling, and that was one of his strengths. That was very surprising."
The character questions now only cloud the water. Of course, NFL teams draft players of questionable character every year, and many of those players go on to have outstanding careers while staying out of trouble.
"Talent usually wins out over temperament in the NFL," said scouting expert Greg Cosell, executive producer of "NFL Matchup," not speaking specifically about the Te'o situation. "That's always the case in sports. Unless a guy is totally disruptive, teams want him if he's good. Look at a guy like [former NFL receiver] Terrell Owens. He stuck around even though he was disruptive because he was so good on Sundays."
Again, with the Te'o story still unfolding, it's not known whether he's a character risk or simply a victim.
"He needs to sit down and just open up and have an honest interview," the NFL scout said. "Tell everything he knows and then move on from this. He just has to be honest and I think he will be OK, as long as he doesn't hide anything."