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NFL teams get their turn at Te'o

By Brian Hamilton

Chicago Tribune

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 03:37 p.m. HST, Jan 22, 2013


On Wednesday morning, Manti Te'o was a more or less glistening, relatively welt-free NFL prospect with one significant but not really treacherous question to answer: Why had he played so terribly in the biggest game of his otherwise superior college career?

By the end of the day ... ?

In various forms, from various voices and in various contexts, Te'o's name wound up elbow to elbow with Cam Newton, Randy Moss and Lawrence Phillips.

The Heisman Trophy runner-up was still a presumed first-round NFL Draft pick in April, but that was the collateral damage of a hoax involving a fake dead girlfriend and Te'o's part in it, and the character questions that followed whether the player was an unwitting victim or not.

"He's going to have to explain this about 32 (darn) times now, in an interview room or whatever," said one NFL scout who requested anonymity because his team prohibits media interaction. "He's going to have to explain the whole thing and (his) agent is going to have to prep him on it.

"He's going to have to have some kind of story that is the same with everybody, or there are going to be even more questions. Is this stable? Did he get screwed? You have to give the kid the benefit of the doubt, but you have to research this thing and find every single angle you can."

Late Friday night, Te'o came clean at last to ESPN and began the rehabilitation process for injuries no one has seen before. He was the subject of a scam involving the death of a fictitious girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, that provided the backdrop to a season that put him in the top half of the first round of 2013 mock drafts almost everywhere.

To virtually no one's knowledge, it swelled in late December and early January and then Te'o had the disastrous performance against Alabama in the BCS championship game. Now every NFL team will work to reassemble the pieces and see if the picture of Te'o looks the same.

"As long as I've been in the National Football League, I've never seen a situation like this," said Gil Brandt, a former longtime Cowboys personnel executive and current NFL.com analyst.

"If you were at the Oklahoma game, you see how well he played against a good team on the road. For the year, the guy had seven interceptions. When you watch the Alabama game, it was like a guy who wasn't there."

So NFL teams may go to extraordinary lengths to see what they have, and Te'o will feel the brunt of it. Teams will investigate players with their personnel departments, and teams also will hire private investigators to dig deeper on perhaps a half-dozen more troublesome or complicated prospects.

A second NFL scout said the league will dispatch its own investigators on certain prospects. And then when Te'o sits in a room with a team, he will face pointed queries about a barely explicable situation from men who likely won't be able to wrap their skulls around it.

Brandt even suggested this: Teams may want to enlist psychologists to help sift through the question-and-answer sessions on a subject "above people who are not trained in that field."

"It's obviously a red flag," the second NFL scout said. "There will be an overreaction to this from a negative standpoint. Initially people want to shoot guys down who are rated up there high, and now they have a situation where they can say, 'Hey, we don't want anything to do with this guy.'

"There will be a lot of questions of why, and what was to be gained, and what did you learn from this. A lot of guys who are asking the questions haven't been in that kind of situation before and really don't understand it. They're going to take a hard line and try to be CIA-type guys."

"He will get absolutely punished more than Cam Newton, with everybody asking about it," the first scout said. "Now, you're going to see what kind of character the kid has because there are teams that talk. Guys will talk and they will say, 'What did he say to you guys?' Is it constant? Is it the same story? Does it change at all?' "

What hasn't changed: The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Te'o finished his college career with 437 tackles and a deep well of experience in publicly addressing and making a case to a larger group.

He landed at No. 8 in ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s initial 2013 mock draft published Wednesday morning, and no one expects Te'o to slide out of the first round, though the second scout opined that he may have gone from the "five to 15" range to "10 to 20."

"If Te'o is able to reassure teams that he is, indeed, the victim in this case, his draft stock may not be affected at all," said Rob Rang, a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com/CBSSports.com.

In an ironic sense, the overwhelmingly bizarre Kekua case may help Te'o explain why he had 12 good performances and one particularly unsettling one.

"I think it would," Brandt said. "Whatever we do related to success on the football field is concentration. If you had something like this hanging over your head, it would be pretty hard to concentrate on what's going on on the field that day."

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