Enough with the T’eo already!
Manti Te’o is a little slow on the track. He is a little strange in his social habits. But the game tape shows a solid linebacker. He will be drafted somewhere between the end of the first and start of the third round, he will earn a starting job, and he will become a typical NFL starting linebacker. That means that the people talking about him now, the national radio personalities and ESPN professional bickerers, will forget that he exists, unless he starts rolling around in wildlife secretions.
As the national draft discussion turns from Te’o’s girlfriend hoax to Te’o’s box turtle imitation in the 40-yard dash to Neanderthal Combine inquisition tactics, I am just starting to transcribe pages of Combine and Senior Bowl notes and sift through dozens of hours of unwatched tape. With little effort, I was able to find five players more interesting, on the field and off, than Manti Te’o, and they aren’t even quarterbacks. There are probably 50 others, but these five will do. When someone brings up the Notre Dame superstar, try changing the subject and talking about one of these guys instead:
Desmond Trufant, Cornerback, Washington
Trufant stood head-and-shoulders above the other cornerbacks at Senior Bowl week: with his combination of athleticism and technique, he was clearly the best cornerback on the field. With a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and a 3.85-second 20-yard shuttle, he also stood head-and-shoulders above most of his peers at the Combine.
The “stand head-and-shoulders” cliché reminds us that height matters more than ever for cornerbacks entering the NFL. Wide receivers are getting taller, and the Seahawks became the team that everyone is trying to emulate with their big, physical cornerbacks. Trufant is tall enough to fit the new prototype at an even six feet, and the fact that his brother Marcus is one of those Seahawks cornerbacks (albeit the third one these days) certainly supports his claim to fit the new mold. Marcus started in the NFL for eight years, while middle brother Isaiah (the fastest but tiniest of the brothers at 5-foot-8) is a backup for the Jets. Desmond has both an NFL pedigree and the fundamentals that come from being part of a football family.
What Trufant lacks is physicality: Trufant was a poor tackler, and sometimes an unwilling tackler, for the Huskies. Trufant spoke to me at length during the Senior Bowl about addressing that problem: he is working on becoming a more technically-sound tackler, and he knows that there’s a mental element to taking and absorbing NFL punishment. Unfortunately, there is little a prospect can do to showcase his hitting skills once the Senior Bowl is over. If Trufant convinces NFL teams that he can be more physical (and he makes a pretty strong case in interviews), he will be seen as a cross between his brother Marcus and Richard Sherman, and will come off the board high in the first round, even if teams think he has enrolled in the Atlanta Falcons Playoff Tackling School. Trufant is so good in coverage that he will probably not last past the first round.
Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
The most interesting thing about Werner is not that he is German and has a slightly Schwarzenegger-like accent. It’s not that he grew up watching football in Germany, played the Madden video game to learn more about the sport (creating “All Werner” all-star teams like a Teutonic teenaged Dan Snyder) and became a high school standout when he arrived in America as an exchange student. It’s not that he had a rock-solid Combine across the board, though he did.
The most interesting thing about Werner is that he may attract attention as an anti-option weapon. Werner is not just fast, strong, and determined. He has rare field awareness for a defensive end. He recognizes screens and misdirection plays the moment they develop. His game tape is full of him picking up running backs leaking into coverage, attacking quarterbacks before they can roll out on bootlegs, and punishing quarterbacks for pulling the ball away and running during options. If NFL teams are looking for a defensive end who can make decisions instead of just charging full steam in search of sacks, Werner is their man.
Stepfan Taylor, Running Back, Stanford
Like a certain Notre Dame linebacker, Taylor ran a surprisingly slow 40-yard dash at the Combine: it took him 4.76 seconds. Not many people are talking about it, in part because Taylor is not Te’o famous, but also because veteran Taylor watchers know that the only time Taylor runs full speed is when he’s playing football.
Taylor entered the Senior Bowl with a step-slow reputation, but once we got a long look at him we stopped caring. Taylor is quick when cutting, quick when making decisions and exploding into the hole, and can accelerate when he turns the corner. He can catch the ball and is Stanford smart. He may get chased down from behind after some 30-yard runs, but he has the skill set to provide plenty of 30-yard runs.
Taylor also has an alter ego, Kulabafi, who wears a leopard-print smoking jacket, straw hat, and stenciled shades, and produced a rap called “Do-Da-Dippity.” The meta-ironic Kulabafi experience is like Clinton Portis-meets-Outkast, filtered through Portlandia. (What makes it all work is that Taylor is so laid back that his supposedly over-the-top alter ego is also laid back. It is like watching Chevy Chase play Gerald Ford). Taylor looks like a mid-round selection, but as a multi-dimensional, high-character back who possesses everything but the size-speed wow factor. He could rise the way Doug Martin rose last year.
Ziggy Ansah, Defensive End, BYU
The Ghana-born Ansah was a two-time washout in the BYU basketball program who got winded while running football tryout sprints just three years ago. Since then, Ansah has improved his stamina, learned to love the contact that he once shied away from, and has become one of the most intriguing players in this draft class.
Everything about Ansah is a mystery, even his age. He told me that he was 23 years old during the Combine, but there are whispers around the NFL that he may be older. At Senior Bowl practices, he was a “flash” player: he would dominate one or two reps of one drill, then appear lost or passive in other drills. That befits a player who is still learning the NFL and admits to still be working on his conditioning. Ansah is very reserved and soft-spoken, raising concerns that he may not have the temperament for playing defensive end. While both the tape and the Senior Bowl practices show a player who doesn’t exactly chew nails, Ansah showed during his Combine press conference that he is funny, confident young man, not a shrinking violet.
There are no questions about his workout numbers: Ansah ran an excellent 4.26-second 20-yard shuttle, and he is a prototypical end at 6-foot-5 and 271 pounds. The team that plans to draft him needs to limit his role as a rookie, develop him, and make certain that he really is a 23-year-old prospect. His upside is so high, though, that some team will take him in the first round, especially a team coached by an outside-the-box defensive thinker (Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick).
Kyle Long, Offensive Line, Oregon
Long started at left guard for only one season with the Ducks. Before that, he was a defensive lineman, like his brother Chris Long and his father Howie. Before that, he was a lefty pitcher for Florida State University. In between, Long battled addiction, lost his Florida State scholarship, earned a DUI arrest and spent a night in jail, and ended up working for a surf shop before getting his life together and enrolling at Saddleback Junior College.
Long has been incredibly forthright in discussing his legal and dependency problems. He provided the bluntest response in Combine industry when a reporter unfamiliar with Long’s backstory asked the generic “what’s the toughest thing you ever had to overcome” question. “Addiction,” Long tersely replied, looking the reporter in the eyes. When asked to elaborate: “It was a tipping point for me. The next day I made the decision I wasn’t going to be able to go back to Florida State University. There was stuff I needed to work on personally. I took a self-inventory and was able to start the process of recovery. I still have a lot to work on, but I’m happy where I am today.”
Long looked solid in Combine workouts and put up some impressive drill numbers, including a 4.94-second 40-yard dash. He shines on game tape. Long mastered Chip Kelly’s complex offense as a fifth-year senior moving over from the defensive line, and he demonstrated both quickness and an innate ability to make good decisions and block the correct defender. (Long said that Kelly’s scheme is “easy” for linemen, which may be true, though it does not look that way on tape.)
Long is working on his center snap and will work out as an all-purpose lineman at Oregon’s Pro Day. At 25, Long is old for a prospect, and he may be trying to market himself as a four-position sub in the NFL, someone who can play any position on the line except left tackle. With his intelligence, he can easily fill that role, but he also has the potential to start at guard or right tackle in a scheme that asks linemen to block on the move: a zone-blocking scheme like the one used by the Texans and Redskins, a 49ers-scheme with lots of pulling, or of course Kelly’s Eagles offense.
Lots of prospects have “character issues” that are shrouded in mystery, and therefore hurt their draft evaluations. Long has a battle with addiction which he is facing publicly, honestly, and head-on. In a way, that makes him more appealing: he knows his demons better than do the prospects who are yet to face them.