Prior to the BCS National Championship and the fake girlfriend scandal, many thought that Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te'o could be a top-10 pick in April. The NFL draft had been trending away from inside linebackers going early in the first round, but last year that trend was bucked by Boston College's Luke Kuechly, who went to the Carolina Panthers with the ninth-overall selection. Kuechly had a tremendous rookie season, and perhaps his success could help Te'o in the 2013 draft with the copycat league that is the NFL.
WalterFootball.com caught up with NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock to get his perspective on the two inside linebackers. Mayock covers Notre Dame for NBC Sports and knows both players well. Judging by Mayock's comments, Te'o falls well short of Kuechly's abilities.
"Kuechly was a tackling machine. Kuechly was set for today's NFL," said Mayock. "If you could match up a prototype inside linebacker with today's NFL, it is Luke Kuechly. With his speed he's a pass first linebacker. He can play three downs. You don't have to take him off the field in nickel; in fact, he's going to be better in nickel, so to me Kuechly is made for today's NFL.
"Te'o struggles a little bit more because he isn't naturally built that way. He isn't as naturally quick or the natural explosion or the change of direction like Luke. But that doesn't mean he isn't tough, instinctive and smart."
At Notre Dame, Te'o played in a 4-3 defense. However there are a number of 3-4 defenses that could use inside linebacker help, and Te'o could be in play for teams like San Diego, Pittsburgh and Houston.
"I think it is important that he does both," said Mayock. "His movement skills were better this year. The NFL is changing into such a pass-first league. The 265-pound inside linebacker that is a downhill thumper is almost obsolete. I thought it was smart of the kid to get in better shape. Right now it is a matter of he has to look teams in the eye and talk to them, and it is more off the field than on the field unfortunately."
Mayock also discussed Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, another potential first-rounder. Eifert's receiving numbers went down as a senior. In 2012, he hauled in 50 passes for 685 yards and four touchdowns. Despite less-than-stellar quarterback play, Eifert caught 63 passes for 803 yards and five touchdowns in 2011. However, Mayock believes that Eifert's improvement as a blocker helped his draft stock compared to what it was a year ago.
"I thought that was the biggest difference," said Mayock. "It was a combination of two things. One, opposing defenses knew what a good pass receiver he was and they did everything in their game plans to take him away. Putting a ton of people on him. On tape, teams were doubling him, combo, all kinds of bracket coverage. To the kid's credit, he took his blocking to a completely different level. Whether he was in line or in motion, I thought that was the biggest difference in his game."
Lastly, Mayock discussed Notre Dame center Braxston Cave, a potential mid-round pick.
"I thought he had a really good senior year," Mayock said. "There was some continuity with that offensive line. I look at them and Braxston specifically, and he lost some weight over the last couple of years. He's gotten in better shape. I think he's increased his movement skills. He's smart, he's tough and he loves the game. He's a natural center in the NFL."