By RALPH D. RUSSO
NEW YORK — When it comes to the NFL draft, getting tricked into an online relationship with a girl that didn’t exist ended up being the least of Manti Te’o’s problems.
That stinker of a game he played against Alabama? Now that’s an issue. Same goes for that less than blazing 40-yard dash he ran at the combine.
Considering all the news involving Te’o since the calendar flipped to 2013, it seems like forever since he was leading Notre Dame to the national title game, playing linebacker like an All-American and cleaning up on the college football awards circuit.
Combine the good, bad and bizarre, and when Te’o gets selected might be the most intriguing part of the NFL draft that starts Thursday in New York.
“There’s no doubt he’ll be one of the story lines of the night,” said former NFL player personnel executive Phil Savage, who works as the executive director of the Senior Bowl.
It’s unlikely that Te’o, who turned down a chance to attend the draft, will be off the board during the first 15 or so picks, but come the back-half of the first round, expect plenty of Te’o talk.
Te’o figured to be a highly scrutinized player heading into this draft even before he became a tabloid news and daytime talk show fixation.
The 6-foot-1, 240-pound middle linebacker was the unquestioned leader of a Notre Dame defense that ranked among the best in the country and propelled the Fighting Irish to an undefeated regular season.
Te’o led the team in tackles and made seven interceptions, more than any linebacker in the country. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, and took home a trophy case-full of other awards.
At his best, Te’o was being touted by some draft prognosticators as a high first-round pick.
Then Notre Dame played Alabama for the national championship.
The Crimson Tide crushed the Irish 42-14 in South Florida and Te’o looked overwhelmed facing Alabama’s array of future NFL draft picks along the line and in the backfield.
You could practically hear Te’o tumbling down draft boards with every missed tackle.
“No question he played poorly against Alabama,” NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt said.
Then things got weird. It was revealed that Te’o’s girlfriend, who supposedly died during the season, never existed. He had been the victim of an elaborate hoax. Catfished.
Aside from being publicly humiliated, the episode called into question Te’o’s character, which until then had seemed exemplary. It was another hit to his draft stock.
The final blow came at the combine, where Te’o ran the 40-yard dash in 4.82 seconds, making him one of the slowest linebackers there. He did better at Notre Dame’s pro day about a month later, but the damage was done.
Te’o had seemingly gone from surefire first-rounder to maybe a second-round pick. Or at least that’s the way it might have looked to those who follow the around-the-clock draft coverage on the Internet and TV these days.
Not so for Brandt, who has Te’o rated as the 20th-best player available.
“I wish he was just a little faster,” Brandt said. Though his scouting report of Te’o also includes, “plays faster than his times.”
Te’o’s lack of straight-line speed could be a problem in man-to-man coverage, but both Brandt and Savage agree Te’o has shown good enough instincts to hold up well in zone coverage. As long he isn’t limited to playing only running downs, Te’o can warrant a first-round selection.
“I think in some respects he’s going to end up being drafted in the range that would have been expected regardless of what had transpired after the regular season,” said Savage, who was general manager of the Browns from 2005-08 and also worked with the Ravens and Eagles.
“The vast majority of player personnel people saw him as a good player, but not as a great player.”
Savage compared Te’o to D’Qwell Jackson of the Browns and DeMeco Ryans of the Eagles. Both were drafted early in the second round.
“(Te’o) did not have the explosive burst and hitting ability that you saw in Ray Lewis, Jon Beason, Jonathan Vilma or Luke Keuchly,” Savage said.
Keuchly was taken ninth overall last season by Carolina and went on to become the defensive rookie of the year.
As far as character questions related to the fake girlfriend hoax, Brandt said that issue was put to rest when Te’o answered dozens of questions from reporters at the combine.
Brandt said he spent time with Te’o at the combine and came away impressed.
“I thought he was a very bright guy, quality individual. Everything about him I thought was upscale,” Brandt said.
Savage said he didn’t get a chance to meet Te’o, who turned down an invite to the Senior Bowl, but heard that his interviews with team officials at the combine went well — and that teams did plenty of digging into his background.
Bears GM Phil Emery told the Chicago Tribune: “I found Manti to be a very good person, a very squared-away guy.”
Savage figures there will be an initial media “circus” for whatever team drafts Te’o, and that team needs a plan to deal with it. Some teams might not feel it’s worth the hassle, but ultimately the decision on whether to draft Te’o won’t be much different from any other prospect.
“The majority of teams have evaluated him,” Savage said, “and if he is the next best player on their board when it’s their pick, they’ll take him.”