teo-seau-trotter-story

His Own Man

We don’t know how Manti Te’o will fare in the NFL, but we know one thing he’s not—Junior Seau

By
Jim Trotter
· More from Jim·

The comparisons aren’t surprising, but they are foolish, premature and lazy.

Rookie Manti Te’o shares certain qualities with the late Junior Seau: He plays the same position, comes from a high-profile college, was drafted by the Chargers and is of Polynesian descent. Beyond that, trying to link the two is unfair to Te’o and insulting to Seau’s on-field legacy, which includes two Super Bowl appearances and 12 Pro Bowls.

“A guy like Junior Seau, you just can’t make comparisons to him, especially with a guy who hasn’t even played yet,” Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning told me in June. “There are so many plays, so many things that he did. Junior was so rare. I had Howard Mudd and Tom Moore as coaches for nearly all of my career—Tom has seen the Jack Youngbloods and the Jack Hams, and Howard Mudd played with Dick Butkus—and the way they talked about Junior in scouting-report meetings, you could tell how highly they thought of him. I remember thinking, If these guys think that highly of him, he must be the real deal. And when you competed against him you saw that he was.”

We don’t know what the Chargers have in Te’o, whose career went from cruising through the fast lane to careening down the off-ramp in a matter of months. Blessed with sharp instincts, a passion for the game and a knack for big plays, he led Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season and finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy. He was talked about as a high first-round draft choice.

But he played poorly in Alabama’s BCS title game blowout of the Fighting Irish, and shortly thereafter he became embroiled in the strange catfishing incident that cast doubts on his character and maturity. Next came a pedestrian showing at the Combine, where he ran a slow 40. In the draft he dropped to the second round.

As camps open, no rookie will be more scrutinized than Te’o. Tom Telesco, San Diego’s first-year general manager, described him as “one of the best players in the country, hands down” after trading second- and fourth-round picks to move up seven spots and select him 38th overall. That was college. What about the NFL? Is he the player who repeatedly showed up big en route to a 12-0 regular season, or the one who disappeared in the BCS title game and didn’t impress in the run-up to the draft?

If you’re not strong enough and don’t have the right kind of technique to engage, separate and be able to get away in an efficient amount of time you’re not going to make plays. He did not have that physicality at the point of attack and never used his hands.

I asked several NFL defensive coaches who scouted him extensively, an offensive coordinator who game-planned against him the past two seasons and a couple general managers who studied every snap from his senior season. The consensus is that Te’o can be a star under only two scenarios: if the Chargers build their defense around his skill set to minimize his shortcomings, or if Te’o learns and adopts hand techniques that’ll allow him to better defeat blockers.

“In the NFL you’re going to get destroyed if you don’t use your hands,” said one coach. “Offensive linemen, tight ends, fullbacks, running backs have become masters of not getting beat with their feet [while blocking], which means they’re going to be able to lock up on you. If you’re not strong enough and don’t have the right kind of technique to engage, separate and be able to get away in an efficient amount of time you’re not going to make plays.

That, the coach says, was one Te’o’s biggest weaknesses: “He did not have that physicality at the point of attack and never used his hands. He would slip a block, shoot a gap and either make or not make a play because of it. I’m not just talking about the championship game. I’m talking about the entire season, looking at his body of work.”

Given that shortcoming, the Chargers must tailor their defense to what Te’o does best, and that means giving him clean paths to the ball. San Diego’s defensive linemen can help in that regard: The projected starters—tackle Cam Thomas (6-4, 330 pounds) and ends Corey Liuget (6-2, 300) and Kendall Reyes (6-4, 300)—are bulky enough to occupy blockers in the Chargers’ 3-4 base scheme. “He’s going to be smart enough to read what you’re doing, and if he has clean access he has that potential to make a play,” another coach said of the 6-1, 242-pound Te’o. “In pass coverage his greatest asset is being able to drop instinctively in a zone and read the quarterback and react. He has ball-hawking skills that are very natural. If you build a defense around that, you’re going to give him the opportunity to be productive.”

Much was made of Te’o’s lethargic pace at the Combine, where he was clocked at 4.82 seconds in the 40 (39 other linebackers ran faster this year). Although he ran slightly faster on his pro day, he will need help in man coverage against fleeter NFL tight ends. He got safety help in college and received high marks against Stanford, which in recent years has had one of college football’s best tight end-centric passing attacks. “He was really good in space, probably the best coverage linebacker we played against,” says Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who held the same position with Stanford the past two seasons. “He could really cover the tight end within their man-zone combo scheme, with help over the top. His coverage instincts were really good, and he was able to get his hands on a couple of balls. His overall skill set is outstanding.”

A key for Te’o will be managing expectations—both high and low. Shortly after he was drafted, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper said, “I remember what the late, great Junior Seau meant to this football team. Manti Te’o is going to have that similar impact.”

The only thing correct about the statement is that Te’o—who is smaller than Seau was, and not as physical, not as strong, and not nearly as fast—will be given every opportunity to stamp his imprint on the organization, which plans to start him right away.

The country won’t have to wait long to see him. Week 1 concludes in San Diego, where the Chargers will host the Texans in a nationally televised Monday night matchup. The last time Te’o was on the primetime stage, he was invisible. That won’t be the case on Sept. 9, if only because we’re sure to hear the comparisons to Seau. In truth, Te’o should be evaluated on his own merits. That’s how he’s going to succeed or fail.

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22 comments
TwoBuy
TwoBuy

I think a far better predicted racially-based comparison would be Lofa Tatupu. Junior Seau, he will not be.

ezwriter69
ezwriter69

Vontaze Burfict ran a 5.09 at the combine in 2012... nobody drafted him, and he was the best rookie linebacker in the league. By comparison, Te'o is a gazelle. I think he can play. We'll see.

ColinProctor
ColinProctor

As someone who was born and raised on the islands, I think that the Polynesian stereotypes that follow the few high-profile players with Polynesian last names into the NFL are completely unfair. Give this guy a chance to work, and there's nothing bad he can do to your team.

gary41
gary41

The thing that strikes me is how popular this guy is.  He was just fine in college, especially against the run, but lacking size, speed and strength makes him vulnerable against good blocking TE's and receiving-joker TE's at the next level.  OC's are not going to have a problem with him, especially on passing downs, as he will be a part of their schemes.  Also, this position requires the disposition of a junk yard dog, which he may acquire soon enough.  At this level someone with size is going to be in his face on most plays.  It's a different ball game.  

rheffero
rheffero

These cheap shots that continue on this kid are absolutely amazing and transparent. Was this because his shirt is the highest selling rookie shirt? Does that really piss off the SEC lap dogs that much> 

For all of this stuff about the Scouts, he ran faster than one of the Bama LB's who went in the first round the year before and have had average careers, and who these same scouts were drooling about.

By all accounts, the coaches and players already love the guy. 

His instincts were measured as off the chart (UCLA), we will see if that still means something on Sunday's.

gontoan
gontoan

Come on! He played awesome four years and, then he had a bad game against Alabama. People gives more importance to one game... Ok, he didn't run fast at Combine, but in 40-yard you have to start with hands on the floor, how many inside linebackers start to run with hands down in the NFL??


Te'o is gonna be a star

Heidijoy5
Heidijoy5

Interesting read!!  Te'o himself said exactly what you said about comparing him to Seau.  He said it was unfair to compare him, a rookie to a Hall of Fame player.  He said it was unfair to Seau, who he has always looked up to.  He is being compared because of his heritage.

Hope people can get off his case and allow him to learn.  He also admitted to needing to learn to get off on Blocks etc etc.

Ciscos
Ciscos

I don't want to smash Manti's "We Love You Celebration," but Kiper is a NFL analytical clown.  Even mentioning Te'o in the same breath with Seau is disrespectful to Seau. Period. Manti hasn't even played a down yet and JUST tossing their two names in a bowl together is insulting.

Te'o's flaws are a major weakness that WILL BE exposed in the NFL... and if I have to adapt and adjust my defense to hide those weaknesses, then explain to me again why I drafted you???  That's the Chargers for you. 

I'm a USC loyalist, so I say this with great pride, during Carroll's tenure at USC and even Lane's first season, they ran right at Te'o.  He disappeared just like he did against Alabama.  Given that information, what in heck does he think NFL teams are going to do to him?  Run by him?  The NFL isn't limited to 20 hours a week.  Those coaches are 16-18 hour a day people who are going to shred every millimeter of film on him. 

I wish him well.

john15
john15

So far T'o can't carry Jr's jock.

TheFFInformer
TheFFInformer

Great read Jim! This was the kind of reporting I was expecting from MMQB and will keep me coming back.

PWINGS
PWINGS

The writer raises valid questions that apply to most players, How well will the scheme the team employs and the skills of his teammates create a situation in which he'll succeed? Even the best players can be compromised if misused and are expected to succeed by relying on their weaknesses rather than their strengths..

The analysis of T'eo's weaknesses in fighting off blocks is very relevant because some very successful MLB's benefited from the talent around them giving them clean looks at the RB rather than having to continually fight through blocks. Had they not had all-Pro's at DL and OLB, their game wouldn't have been as successful. If T'eo falls in that category, he will only be as successful as his teammates allow him to be.

CraigWachs
CraigWachs

did he not have 10 - 12 tackles in champ. game ?  thats pretty darn good

shoedog14
shoedog14

Great Article. Nice to read something that isn't ridiculous hype or praise and is fair. I think Teo has the chance to be very good. He's going to need a little time. I can see Peyton having a field day with him if the Chargers don't have a pass rush. Hopefully, we do! I do think he can become a great linebacker.

DjangoZ
DjangoZ

@gontoan Ha! I wish we could make a wager on that. I'd bet alot of money that Te'o will never be an All-Pro, much less a star.

Ciscos
Ciscos

@gontoan @Gowian ~ I agree, there is a difference between 40 speed and "football" speed.  I think the NFL puts too much emphasis on 40 times, but that's just me.  I'll also double down and raise you two beers that those agility drills are mildly interesting outside lateral mobility and footwork. I mean really do I need to know what my QB and OLinemen's verticals are? ** shakes head slowly **

The knock against Te'o is based on film and you know in the NFL you're only as good as your last game.  Te'o picked the worst time on the worst stage to have a bad game.  But that "bad" game exposed some issues that were pretty obvious earlier (as I mentioned below) that, quite frankly, I don't think a lot people paid attention to.  He won't have that same benefit of the doubt in the NFL.  The scrutiny on him is going to be high.  Personally, it does him a disservice for analysts like that nut Mel Kiper to compare him to Seau.  The Chargers should taper that talk down each and every chance they get because comparing him to Junior, this early, is setting him up for failure.

Gowian
Gowian

@gontoan Drives me nuts about the combine.  A bunch of exercises that have zero relevance to the actual game.  Then, coaches and GM's ignore 3-4 years of actual, on the field play in reaching conclusions.  I remember when Mario Manningham was declared "slow".  As an ND fan, I could tell you he wasn't slow, by any means.  But he was sick that day, and ran a relatively slow 40 (4.6).  But combine trumps real life.  

rheffero
rheffero

@Ciscos Teo is WAY better than the last MLB's USC sent to the NFL (Ray M-Cushing off PED's yet?). These same scouts fed us the stuff on the Bama LB's who then failed to be anything but average.

Baldini1
Baldini1

@CraigWachs You're going to get that many opportunities to make a tackle when you're playing defense for 38 minutes and the other team runs the ball 45 times.

JohnWells1
JohnWells1

@CraigWachs  Not when the other team scores 42.  If the score was 17-14, then sure, but not 42-14.

Kenner King
Kenner King

@JohnWells1 @CraigWachs It is not as if all 42 points ran through Teo. USC had an RB playing the game of his life at the right time, and ND had some bad luck. At least 3 times, they got a clean look at a safety blitz but missed by inches.  Alabama was the better team that day. But Teo did have 10 tackles. He probably could have had 20 tackles and still lost the game. If you recall the actual game, Alabama worked all passing plays along the sideline, avoiding Teo.

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