On Valentine's Day, our own Andrew Miller showed no love for Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and his potential arrival in Cincinnati via the draft in April. In case you need reminding, Miller's argument stemmed from the controversy surrounding Te'o and the fact that he doesn't view the former Irish defensive captain as a first round talent. Both are valid points.
As has been expressed frequently this offseason, the Bengals are looking at completely revamping their linebacker group this year. Two starting positions are up for grabs in 2012 and it's unclear which two those will be. If the team will move Vontaze Burfict inside to his natural position this year, then the two outside positions need filling. Burfict played well at the weakside spot though, so it's possible they keep him there so that they keep his young head from spinning by playing two positions in two NFL seasons. One thing is starting to clear up though, and that is that the Bengals won't likely be bringing Rey Maualuga back, per a recent report.
So then there's Te'o. He's one of the most decorated linebackers in college history and had an outstanding senior season, save for the incredibly disappointing National Championship game against Alabama. He's versatile at the position too, as he has played inside in both 4-3 and 3-4 base defenses. He's also proven to be adequate in coverage, as evidenced by his seven interceptions in his senior season. Because of this, some think that he could play either middle or outside linebacker at the pro level.
Let's get one thing straight here as well, though Maualuga and Te'o are both middle linebackers and are from the Islands of the Pacific, they are not the same player. Te'o is a much more instinctual player at the position, has better tackling ability (save for that final game against the Crimson Tide), and has shown the ability to make more big plays. The similarities stop at their heritage and the position that they play.
The national "mock drafters" always point to the Bengals taking a chance on a questionable character in the draft. While this is true, they haven't exactly done the proper research to back that up and prefer to rely on a stereotype. The Bengals don't normally take chances on questionable characters in the first round of the draft. In the Marvin Lewis era, only Andre Smith and, to a much lesser extent, Dre Kirkpatrick fit that bill.
Where they are more likely to take a chance is in the second round. The Bengals get both praised and lauded for their selections after round one because the players they choose are perceived as first round talents that fall into the waiting arms of the Bengals. You can point to Odell Thurman, Carlos Dunlap, and Maualuga as examples there. And, really, the only way that Te'o should be lumped into the "questionable character" category is if it comes to the surface that the girlfriend hoax ended up being something he was in on from the get-go. That hasn't been proven as of yet.
Even so, it's a definite possibility that Te'o could fall into the Bengals' lap at the top of the second round. If scouts continue to obsess over the tape of the National Championship game and if the young man fails to answer the many questions that he'll undoubtedly receive at the Combine, he could tumble. Heck, we saw it last year with Vontaze Burfict for his own reasons and he was passed over for seven rounds.
If Te'o were to fall into the second and is there at No.37 and the Bengals didn't address the linebacker position with their No.21 overall pick, the team would have to take a hard look at him, wouldn't they?
Again, we're talking about the first round in many of these mocks and grabbing Te'o towards the back of the first round shouldn't be considered a reach. The kid finished second in the Heisman voting--as a linebacker. That's almost unheard of these days with the college and pro game totally emphasizing offense and the numbers that are produced. While the Bengals defense is a stout group, there's a couple of major shortcomings on Mike Zimmer's unit. One is the inability to create a bunch of turnovers--namely interceptions. The other is the inability of the linebackers to run with tight ends and wide receivers. Te'o has proven he can do both with the numbers he produced in 2012.
Will the media be a distraction for Te'o? Potentially. He'll likely have a hard time in his rookie year avoiding some scrutiny, and you just have to believe that the fans at away stadiums will be ruthless in their hazing of the kid. Still, Cincinnati is a smaller market and the spotlight won't shine as bright as long as Te'o keeps his head down and just plays football. Te'o playing pigskin in the Queen City likely won't be as difficult than say, in New York, where they will be watching his every off-field move and follow the developments of his future love life. Not so much the case here.
Te'o would also have the benefit of working with Zimmer, who is a hard-nosed disciplinarian that demands execution. Zimmer is a tough love type of coach where if he's yelling at you, you know he likes you and sees something in you. Te'o would probably respond well to that type of coaching, given the animated nature of Irish coach, Brian Kelly. With the plethora of talent on the defensive line, Te'o could have a chance to play well at a couple of linebacker spots in Cincinnati.
Unlike Andrew here at CJ, I actually view Te'o as more than a solid prospect. I think that he has a bright future in the NFL if he surrounds himself with the right people and stays healthy. Depending on how things play out in free agency, Te'o could fill a major need at a position group that is in a complete overhaul. Though there has been a media circus around the kid, let's not jump off of a cliff when he is projected to land with the Bengals. After all, Te'o could be a sizable upgrade from the players that the team trotted out there at two linebacker spots.