As a Raiders fan, I've had to spend my football Sundays watching terrible defenses take the field since I was 13 years old. With my team now in possession of the third overall pick, I'm anticipating this year's draft more than any since 2007 when the Raiders selected the biggest thief in NFL history, JaMarcus Russell. This year, I don't want a player who is simply oozing with physical tools. I don't want a player with loads of potential and raw ability. I want a player who I have seen dominate the field of play with his head on straight as the unquestioned leader of his team. I want Manti Te'o to be an Oakland Raider.
Unfortunately, my wish is unlikely to be granted, as we are now in an era in which speedy pass rushers, monstrous run stuffers, and shutdown cornerbacks dominate defensive priority lists. With so many needs on the defensive side of the ball, the Raiders are unlikely to select the understated middle linebacker - but I strongly believe they should reconsider.
There's so much focus in the draft on defensive ends, outside linebackers, and cornerbacks - but think about it, those players cover half of the field. Sure, a great defensive end stays at home and prevents the cutback on a stretch play to the opposite side, but a great middle linebacker hunts the running back down and makes the tackle on a stretch play to either side.
I've seen first-hand how a great cornerback impacts a bad defense. Nnamdi Asomugha had one of the all-time impressive cornerback seasons back in 2008, in which he gave up eight catches for 133 yards all season. Asomugha was named first-team All-Pro, but the Raiders were still ranked 27th in total defense and 22nd in opponent yards per pass attempt.
The most valuable defensive players are located in the middle of the defense, where they can make an impact on any play. If a team wants to take a player like Star Lotulelei over Te'o - fine. I have no beef with that, as Lotulelei is a sensational interior defensive lineman who can wreak havoc wherever you try to run the ball. I'd still advise taking Te'o, however, because he's been the better of the two players in the film that I've seen.
Just look at the perennially great defenses: the Ravens with Ray Lewis, the Steelers with Troy Polamalu, the Bears with Brian Urlacher, the 49ers with Patrick Willis/Justin Smith. How about the team ranked 1st in scoring defense this season? The Seahawks' lone Pro Bowler was safety Earl Thomas. The list goes on and on.
You may be wondering about the Houston Texans, who have the 7th ranked defense with their best players located at defensive end and cornerback. You remember Brian Cushing, right? Former Pro Bowl middle linebacker? Cushing is out for the season with a torn ACL. Before Cushing's injury, the Texans gave up 275.6 yards per game; after the injury, the Texans have given up 344.9 yards per game. That's a pretty sizable difference.
Shutdown corners and dynamic pass rushers are great to have, but their talents go to waste without a solid interior presence. Take a look at the 49ers' Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks through his first 13 games (1.5 sacks per game). Since currently injured defensive tackle Justin Smith - arguably the 49ers' best defensive player - played his last full game, Aldon Smith has registered zero sacks in three contests.
For another example of great pass rushers and cornerbacks with no interior presence, take a look at the Philadelphia Eagles...
I'm not saying that any team should take a good middle linebacker over a great pass rusher or cornerback, but some analysts have Te'o ranked as the best player in this draft. A lot of people are saying that he'll drop because of the position he plays, and that simply should not be the case.
Te'o is as dynamic as they come. He can plug holes in the running game and run alongside halfbacks. He's an exceptional tackler, missing only two tackles all season, both of which came against Le'Veon Bell, Todd McShay's second ranked draft eligible running back. Te'o also has the agility and footwork to cover pass catching tight ends - a trait that has become extremely valuable to NFL teams in recent years.
Finally, there are the intangibles. I know that word - intangibles - has been pounded into your head time and time again, but with middle linebackers it really makes an enormous difference. Think about all the great players at the position - they all have the ability to get their team playing at another level, playing better than they thought they could be. Te'o has that. Unlike teams such as Alabama and LSU, Notre Dame isn't overflowing with NFL prospects, but Te'o and company are still the top ranked defense and top ranked team in college football.
Te'o is a rare talent. He possesses just about everything one needs to be successful in the NFL. He plays a position that is underrated in the modern game. I've seen mock drafts from respectable analysts drop him as low as 15th, which I believe could make him the biggest steal of the draft (assuming we don't have another Tom Brady in the sixth round).
Whatever team gets Te'o in April should be cheering for joy all the way up until he takes the field and revolutionizes their defense in September. I sure hope that team is the Raiders, but my money is on Te'o being selected in the 5-10 range.