Judgements: All eyes on Manti Te'o for his NFL Combine debut

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Get ready for The Manti Te'o Story, Part Deux, with the Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist confronted this weekend by a battery of reporters who want answers to their questions. One he won't be able to answer, however, is the most intriguing one -- namely, can his off-the-field troubles affect his draft status?

Answer: Absolutely, and that's not me. It's Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks.

"Everything can drive a guy's stock down," he said. "Guys get very sensitive around this time. The breaks that come out just before Draft Day can make a big impact. The stuff that comes out of this combine can make a big impact. Everything counts ... which is really the best way to say it. This is just another case this year."

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Of course, this is not just another case. It's one of the most bizarre stories of the past year, with people still wondering what happened. I know some guys who believe it has little impact on where Te'o is drafted and that his play -- particularly his play in the BCS championship game -- is more of a determining factor.

But Carroll is right. When NFL clubs evaluate their next investment, off-the-field concerns can play significant roles.

"If there's an unusual story we try to follow it up and find out what it means," said Carroll. "We want to know exactly what the truth is and figure out what it means to us. And in Manti's case, we'll do our homework."

Te'o will, too, with handlers prepping him for the inevitable questions. His appearance is guaranteed to draw the biggest audience of the weekend, much as Andrew Luck's and RG3's did a year ago, and Tim Tebow's did in 2011. Those guys were measured by their responses, as will Te'o, but his questions will be more difficult to answer.

"He's going to do great," said tight end Tyler Eifert, Te'o's teammate at Notre Dame. "I think he's handled the whole story really well. I'm sure he'll be a little bit nervous, but there is nothing for him to be nervous about. I'm sure he'll get a lot of questions about it. He's a smart, smart guy. He didn't do anything wrong. But he'll be able to answer those questions."

2. While not specific, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh headed down the same path as Carroll when he was asked what would happen if he discovered a draft prospect lying. Of course, Harbaugh put his own spin on it, and ... well, let him explain, as only Harbaugh can. "Somebody that's not truthful?" he said. "That's big to me. I'm a big fan of the Judge Judy show, and when you lie in Judge Judy's courtroom it's over. Your credibility is completely lost. You have no chance of winning that case. So I learned that from her. It's very powerful, and it’s true. Because if somebody does lie to you how can you ever trust anything they say after that? Ronald Reagan, another person of great wisdom and advice: 'Trust but we will verify.' "

3. Cal's Keenan Allen is one of the top wide receivers, but he won't run here because of an injured left knee -- and that's too bad. He misses a chance to dispel one of the knocks on him, which is his speed -- or lack of it. "I'm definitely disappointed," he said. "I wanted to come here and show everyone what I could do. I was definitely on target for a 4.4."

4. Two years ago Oklahoma's Landry Jones was one of the most promising young quarterbacks in college football. Now, the promise that was there once seems to have diminished, with critics questioning his mechanics, his big-play ability and, frankly, his ability to show up in significant games -- all of which could push him down draft boards. "I'm very, very pleased with the way my career went," said Jones. "I don't have any regrets."

5. Nevertheless, Jones knows there are parts of his game that need improving, one of the reasons he's working out with George Whitfield at his quarterback training academy in California. "I think the thing for me," said Jones, "is about my setup, holding the ball a little bit higher and taking some of the extra things in my motion and just kind of scratching it out of my game." Translation: He must quicken his release.

6. USC quarterback Matt Barkley, recovering from a separated shoulder, won't work out Saturday -- but he is throwing again. In fact, he said he can throw with "great velocity" on deep passes. Nevertheless, he'd rather wait until his March 27 Pro Day to work out for scouts. "I believe I will better than I was before," he said. Barkley said he's "100 percent" with his rehab, undergoing therapy with physicians who oversaw the recoveries of Drew Brees and Sam Bradford. "I've been working as hard as I can to make it to this day," said Barkley. "We'll just have to wait."

7. If the Philadelphia Eagles are looking for their next quarterback in the draft -- and they may -- they should consider Florida State's EJ Manuel with a middle-round pick. One guy called him "the biggest tease in the draft," but he may be a perfect fit for Chip Kelly's offense. After all, it was Kelly who recruited him when Manuel was a high-school senior in Virginia. "I definitely feel I'm the best quarterback in this class," said Manuel. "I'm very confident in my abilities. That's why I was excited about [having the opportunity to throw at] the combine. I see it as an opportunity to show others my skills."

8. West Virginia's Geno Smith handled himself with poise and confidence when he met Friday with reporters. Smith is regarded as the best quarterback in this year's class, but the group is so underwhelming and some contend there's not a legitimate first-rounder in there. That doesn't mean one won’t be taken there. Of course, there will be. There will be more than one, and Smith should be one of them -- one of the reasons he's throwing here. "I don't expect to prove any of those people wrong without even playing a down in the NFL," Smith said of his detractors. "My only expectation is to become as polished as I can when I enter into the NFL and compete and be a competitor. That's all I know how to do."

9. For those concerned about Tavon Austin's size (5-8, 174), the West Virginia wide receiver has a response: "I haven't gotten hurt or missed a game in eight years," he said. Austin is the guy who put up 572 all-purpose yards vs. Oklahoma last season, so there should be no concerns about his ability to make it as a slot receiver -- and there aren't. Just ask Austin. When talking about what NFL receiver he admires, he mentioned Wes Welker. "I watch a lot of tape on him," he said. "I think I'm a little quicker and faster than him. So I figure if he can do it, I can do it, too."

10. South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore said he was examined for an estimated three to four hours Friday by clubs and for good reason: He's coming off three torn knee ligaments and probably won't play this season. So the question is: How soon do you take him? Buffalo gambled on running back Willis McGahee in the 2003 draft, taking him with the 23rd pick despite a knee injury that would keep him out of the next season. That's not likely to happen with Lattimore, but he's not rattled. "At this point," he said, "it doesn't matter where I get drafted. People would kill to be in my shoes."

11. Kansas State's Collin Klein is working with former quarterback Jake Plummer on his mechanics, too, with Klein saying the concentration is on closing his front shoulder and working on his footwork. "I have all the confidence in the world that I can make every throw that needs to be made," he said. Unfortunately for Klein, not everyone has all the confidence in the world that Klein -- who once played wide receiver -- can play quarterback at the next level. Klein remains unfazed, which is another way of saying: Don't look for him to consider a position change. "I want to pursue every door I can at quarterback," he said, "and until every one of those are closed I'm not considering anything else."

12. You gotta love Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker. First of all, the guy had more energy in Friday's interviews than any three players combined. Second, he had the right attitude, too. He said he'd play anywhere -- right tackle, left tackle, guard. "I'll even try center," he said. Fluker is considered a right-tackle prospect who should go anywhere from the 15th to the 25th choice for three reasons: 1) He's good, 2) he's physical and 3) he can be dominating. "When I get [an opponent] on skates," he said, "I finish them. Kind of like Mortal Combat."

13. Fluker's teammate, guard Chance Warmack, will be the first Alabama player taken in the draft. In fact, he's so highly regarded that he could be the first interior lineman since 1975 to be chosen in the top five -- something that doesn't seem to mean that much to him. "It makes me feel good, but at the same time I don’t really pay attention to that," he said. "I know where I came from and where I stood. I'm not perfect. I made mistakes. And I'm going to get better."

14. With a new head coach, the future of the San Diego-Dallas preseason scrimmage is in question. That doesn't mean it's out. The two practiced the past two seasons around an exhibition game, but the Chargers' Mike McCoy said he wouldn't "close the door" on anything in the future, waiting "to see what develops." While that doesn't exclude the Cowboys, it doesn't include them, either, with McCoy saying he would be willing to scrimmage other clubs, too.

15. A classy -- and expensive -- move by Baltimore John Harbaugh Thursday night: He picked up the tab for all the coaches at their annual special-teams dinner here. Harbaugh was a special-teams coordinator for all but one year in Philadelphia before taking the Ravens' job.

Five quotes to remember

1. "We never really huddled." -- Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones when asked about what presence he brings to a huddle.

2. "I'm a little guy, but I play big." -- West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin.

3. "I want to be the Ray Lewis of my offensive line." -- Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker.

4. "I consider myself explosive. I want to be the definition of that word." -- Alabama guard Chance Warmack.

5. "It's like any chess game. The tight-end position is like the queen you can move all around the board. It's not like the rook or the bishop. The position is one you can move all around the board, and you can use it to your advantage." -- Mike Smith on the value of tight ends.

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