The day after the Atlanta Falcons lost in the NFC championship game, head coach Mike Smith expressed a need for more playmakers in 2013.
With the NFL draft roughly three months away and the Falcons owning a first-round pick for the first time in two years — they sent last year’s No. 1 to Cleveland, as part of the Julio Jones trade (2011) — general manager Thomas Dimitroff and his staff will soon set upon the task of how to use the 30th overall pick.
The question: Will they go offense or defense?
Many experts anticipate the Falcons will pick a tight end to replace Tony Gonzalez, who is expected to retire. If they go that route, one name that keeps popping up is Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert.But since the Falcons already have a preponderance of playmakers on that side of the ball — wide receivers Jones and Roddy White, along with quarterback Matt Ryan, to name a few — what about one of Eifert’s teammates on the defensive side of the ball?
Namely, linebacker Manti Te’o.
Mock drafts are starting to trickle out, with estimates for Te’o going all over the map. One on NFL.com, which was updated within the last two weeks, has Te’o ranging from eighth to 26th. FOXSports.com’s Peter Schrager, whose mock preceded the revleation that Te’o’s girlfriend did not exist, predicted the Heisman runner-up would go 23rd to San Diego.
Schrager proved prescient when prefacing his picks: “A lot can happen between now and April 2013,” noting “off-the-field issues can rear their ugly heads.”
Well, Te’o’s ugly, off-the-field issue reared its head. It dominated not just sports headlines but entire news cycles. Case in point, my 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter were asking me who he was … and they don’t even follow football.
It remains to be seen how the Te’o fallout affects his draft status. To briefly recap, Te’o was duped by an online hoax regarding a woman (Lennay Kekua) whom he believed to be his girlfriend. Of equal relevance, Te’o also appears to be guilty of some complicity, essentially lying to the media about the story of his girlfriend. In particular, he said he met Kekua, which he never did, a fact that he owned up to in a TV interview with Katie Couric.
(His draft status also might be hurt by an ineffective showing against Alabama in the BCS title game, though the recent NFL.com mock drafts might dispel that notion.)
In the coming months, NFL executives, like Dimitroff, must weigh how much “character” — and how it pertains to the hoax incident — matter when drafting a player of Te’o’s athletic calber. For the Falcons, and team owner Arthur Blank, history would that character is a major component to getting selected by Atlanta in April.
Several years ago, the Falcons parted ways with linebacker Michael Boley after a domestic violence incident. In 2011, Boley won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants.
Dimitroff’s track record shows that he picks players who are smart and who, for the most part, have clean records off the field, or are mostly drama-free. It also depends on the nature of the offenses.
A number of Falcons players — Jonathan Babineaux, Michael Turner, John Abraham — have been arrested over the last few seasons and remained with the club. But those cases involved players who rank among the team’s most productive and dealt with trangressions that either were non-violent or affected only themselves.
To be clear, Te’o was not arrested. But his presence would invite a circus-like atmosphere to training camp, and Mike Smith is no-nonsense when it comes to camp. He doesn’t want distractions. The Falcons would only invite the distraction if they thought the potential advantages would outweigh the negatives. If Te’o does fall to No. 30, his draft profile might indicate a player who would help Atlanta’s defense.
Against both San Francisco and Seattle in the playoffs, Atlanta’s linebackers struggled when covering opposing tight ends on pass plays. Te’o had seven interceptions in 2012 — extraordinarily high for a linebacker — and four passes defended, indicating that he’ll be proficient in pass coverage at the NFL level.
While second-year player Akeem Dent showed himself to be a reasonably effective run defender at middle linebacker over time, taking Te’o would mean adding a three-down player — something Dent is not. It also could mean helping the Falcons switch to a 3-4 front, a move Smith has not ruled out, as defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has coached the 3-4 in the past.
It also could provide the added benefit of replacing outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas — who might have worn out his welcome in Atlanta — and allow the Falcons to move defensive end Kroy Biermann to outside linebacker, where his size would be a better fit.
If Te’o becomes available when the Falcons are on the clock, they’ll have some tough decisions on their hands.