Draft evaluations take on added significance

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Manti Te’o ordeal has become a national punchline, an all-too-common reference for Internet and Twitter comedians.

But where the jokes stop regarding the Notre Dame linebacker who was duped by an online “girlfriend,” the evaluations for NFL teams begin. Psychological testing has become increasingly important for teams in recent years, but the tests have taken on added significance in the wake of the Te’o story.

“We’ll be a little bit more heavily involved in social media,” Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said last week, joking that the Te’o’s situation caused him to watch “Dr. Phil” for the first time in his life. But it’s clear that the issue is giving NFL teams more to think about.

“I did watch those interviews,” Spielman said of Te’o’s TV appearances. “But all we do is gather all the information, and you go through your process to make the determination.”

As NFL teams gather this week at the Scouting Combine, Te’o will be a hot topic. Based on talent alone, many believe the Heisman Trophy runner-up is a first-round talent at linebacker. But every team will be checking out Te’o — and every player, for that matter — to see whether his mental and emotional capacity matches his physical ability. Such is life in the Internet age. Teams will conduct psychological tests, of course, but each team also has already been checking players’ backgrounds, including their social media profiles. If there is something to find, NFL teams usually discover it through extensive searching.

“We know some things that have not been reported in the media. I’ll say that,” Spielman said.

What they do with the knowledge they acquire becomes the key.

“I’ve done it for a while,” Spielman said of psychological testing. “I brought that process here when I came here. I think it’s part of the total picture. That’s why you have to interview these guys, and the red flags that do show up, you try to address. If something from the psychological profiling came up, you address it with that player, and you kind of make your own determination, too. It’s kind of an instinct and an experience factor that goes into that decision. It’s a tool. It’s not a be-all end-all.”

Minnesota has benefited from giving players a chance before, none more prominent than receivers Randy Moss and Percy Harvin. Spielman said the Vikings haven’t taken any players off their draft board yet this season and that all have avoided the dreaded “red dot” so far. Minnesota, like many teams, will meet with Te’o at the Combine.

“It’s no bigger than anyone else,” said Spielman, whose team owns the 23rd pick in the first round. “I know it’s high-profile, but I try to treat everybody the same and try to do the same due diligence that you would with any other player. I don’t put one emphasis above another.”

Other teams will do the same with Te’o, who will be one of the most scrutinized players in the history of the Combine. He was considered an emotional, strong leader for Notre Dame, but that was before the news broke that a person he had thought was his girlfriend was actually a man he had met online only. 

“I would tell Te’o, ‘You better look people in the eye, and I know you’re going to be embarrassed and I know it’s going to be uncomfortable,’ ” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said in a conference call this week. “All weekend, plus all the way up through the draft, it’s not going to be a comfortable situation for this kid. But don’t be embarrassed.

“I think he’s a good kid, and I think he made a mistake, and he’s naive and all that stuff, but don’t back away. You did what you did. Look people in the eye, tell them your story, and let the tape do the talking for you. Your tape over four years, your performance this weekend, run your tail off, and it’s going to be uncomfortable, but be honest.”

And teams will then have to judge his honesty and his mental make-up, just as they are scrutinizing every player a little more these days.

“I think the biggest thing is that these kids get really polished up for the interview process,” Spielman said. “All the agents are trying to get these kids prepared for the Combine, not only physically but through that interview process. We try to do it where we can get that guard down and focus on ways to really get to know the kid and take some of that polish off. There’s ways, I think, that we’ve came up with that we can do that.”

Te’o did struggle on the biggest stage of the season in the national championship game. Spielman believes that game is only one part of Te’o’s evaluation, as is his interview at the Combine. Spielman and other GMs will try to learn the whole story; why he didn’t play as well in the title game, why he was duped, why he didn’t come clean after he knew he was fooled. In the end, Te’o didn’t commit a crime. He has no known drug issues. But the psychological piece has become very important in the overall draft puzzle.

“You’ll sit there and discuss all that,” Spielman said. “Every team will make their own determination. How do you compare what happened, because he’s an extremely talented football player, against a guy who may have a drug issue or may have an arrest record or may have some other off-field issue. Everybody’s going to have, just like on any player, their difference of opinion. We’ll go through that process as well.”

What the Vikings and the NFL find out will be interesting, and you’ll likely know the results of those findings when Teo’s first-round projection either solidifies or falls off as the draft approaches.

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