The likelihood the Chicago Bears will bring back future Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher seems fairly slim. As a result, the Bears will be in the market to try and find his replacement in the upcoming NFL Draft. There are anywhere between two and four middle linebackers that could be drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft.
Perhaps the most polarizing player of that group is Manti Te'o from Notre Dame. By some accounts, Te'o was once considered a Top 5 pick. Now he's a player that could be available with the Bears are on the clock with the 20th overall selection of the first round. Precisely how much his stock has moved due to the fake girlfriend issue, no one really seems to know.
Beyond the girlfriend hoax, does Te'o's play on the field warrant him being selected in the first round? The best way to settle this debate is to have a point, counter point discussion between our two experts here at BearReport.com
Brett Solesky: Let me get something out of the way immediately, I don't care about the girlfriend hoax as it relates to Manti Te'o's character as a person or on the football field. I think that issue is completely irrelevant when it comes to Te'o the football player. Where it does matter is when you analyze the level of hype that surrounds Te'o as a prospect.
Nothing is more marketable than a tragedy and an athlete's inner strength to overcome that tragedy. Look at what Tim Tebow's legacy off the field has done for him as a player. That to me is the likely basis for the Lenay Kakua hoax. It was a hype-driven marketing gimmick gone wrong and it served to inflate Te'o's draft stock.
LB Manti Te'o
When I watch tape on Manti Te'o I see a big, physical linebacker with average speed. Te'o physically looks like Junior Seau in size and build but he doesn't play at that elite level. I don't see him making WOW plays, plays that make you say, where did he come from and man that was a big tackle. When I hear about a linebacker that has first-round ability, I want to see him dominating. I want to see him flash across the screen and I don't see that from Te'o.
Jeremy Stoltz: I agree that the girlfriend hoax means nothing to me in relation to his draft stock. There have been countless prospects with much dirtier pasts than Te'o who have excelled at the next level. Ray Lewis was involved in a murder. Te'o had a pretend girlfriend. There's no comparison.
Where we disagree is the kind of impact Te'o can have at the next level. We brought up the possible loss of Urlacher, who excelled in Chicago because of his ability to get back and cover the deep middle zone – a key component of the Cover 2 defense. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said the defense won't change much going forward, so the Bears need a good cover linebacker with speed.
Te'o fits that description perfectly. During his senior season, he had seven interceptions and eleven passes defended. That demonstrates a player with great awareness, quickness and ball skills in coverage. With Te'o, the Bears wouldn't skip a beat against the pass. In fact, with Urlacher hobbled last year, it's safe to assume Chicago's pass defense would improve significantly with Te'o in the middle.
BS: In my opinion there's no way Te'o is the type of player in coverage that Urlacher is or was. Part of his success in coverage this year was being in the right place at the right time or taking advantage of tipped passes.
Beyond the pass coverage the more important aspect of a linebacker's ability is how he plays the run. Te'o was average against the run and in the national championship game he was exposed for what he is as a linebacker. He was man handled at the point of attack and missed a ton of tackles.
Analysts are making the excuse for him that the Kekua situation was weighing on his mind during the National title game, but the story didn't break with the national media until AFTER the title game. At that point there's no way he could have known that the media would get a hold of the story. Shouldn't he have been able to deal with that as easily as he dealt with her death, if he is in fact the type of player we have been led to believe?
JS: I'm not buying that the girlfriend story was weighing on him. He was completely manhandled by the Alabama offensive line, but that's a line that has three potential first rounders in this year's draft. Still, it showed the flaws in Teo's game, which is an inability to be stout at the point of attack. Creating separation from blockers is not his strong point, but then again, Urlacher struggled in that area as well.
Yet Te'o is nowhere near the athlete Urlacher was coming out of New Mexico. That doesn't mean Te'o' is going to be a bad linebacker in the pros but in my opinion, he is not a first rounder. I could see him having a long career in the NFL but it's doubtful he'll ever reach Pro Bowl status. As such, he's not worth a first-round selection. If the Bears want him at 20th overall, they'll have to pass on a number of potential game-changers, which Te'o is not.
BS: I agree Te'o is not a first-round prospect, and it's very rare that many middle linebackers are. I think there's a question about value that has to be asked when creating a draft board to fill needs on your football team.
That question is what are the positions of major impact on the football field that have to be addressed by the Bears? Linebackers (that aren't pass rushers), running back, interior offensive line, safety ... are those players going to come in and make an immediate impact? My answer to that question is no, so that begins to narrow the focus of the Bears front office on which players they should target at 20.
JS: With that in mind, if the rest of the league feels like we do, and Te'o falls to Chicago in the second round, he would then be worth the risk in my opinion.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.
Brett Solesky has worked in TV, newspapers and, for the last seven years, in radio. He also co-hosts the best Chicago Bears podcast on the Web, Bear Report Radio, which appears on BearReport.com and his blog MidwayIllustrated.com.