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?
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.