- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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With franchise stalwart Brian Urlacher set to enter free agency, there seems to be a sense of urgency to find an heir apparent at the middle linebacker position. But two personnel evaluators believe there might be better options at the position for the Bears at No. 20.
General manager Phil Emery was asked at the NFL Combine whether Urlacher’s pending free-agent status could affect the team’s decision making in April when the team goes on the clock in the first round of the draft or next month in free agency.
“The qualities (Urlacher) brings, probably you say when you fill the roster how many linebackers we have has an impact,” Emery said. “But right now where we’re at in the process, we’re here to look at really good players and see if they fit.”
While Te’o might be seen as a potential fit, both personnel evaluators considered Georgia’s Alec Ogletree and LSU’s Kevin Minter better options should the Bears continue under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to play a Tampa-2 system, which requires a rangy middle linebacker to drop into the middle third of the field on passing downs.
The evaluators expect Tucker to employ more of a traditional 4-3 front with 3-4 principles with regards to how linebackers leverage blocks.
One evaluator raved about Minter’s short-area speed, but questioned whether he’d be able to consistently cover the middle third of the field in pass situations. Both expressed initial concern that Minter would measure officially at 5-11. But Minter came in Saturday at 6-0, officially.
Physically, Ogletree (6-2, 242 pounds) possesses more ideal traits as a middle linebacker in Chicago’s scheme. A former safety, Ogletree is more suited to the coverage responsibilities of the Bears’ system, and is versatile enough to also play on the weak side. But Ogletree was suspended in 2012 for the first four games of the season for failing a drug test, and arrested just last week for DUI.
“I’m very versatile. I can come off the edge or play in the middle,” Ogletree said. “It doesn’t really matter, but like I said, I’ve been playing middle linebacker and that’s all I know really.”
Ogletree also knows his troubled past will be an issue for teams headed into the draft; especially his DUI arrest leading up to the combine.
“It doesn’t really matter when it happened. It happened,” Ogletree said. “Like I said, I hate that it happened. I feel bad about it. But, you know, I have to move forward.”
Te’o wants to do the same, having become the center of controversy at the NFL combine because of the scandal involving a non-existent girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, which called into question his character despite evidence pointing to the linebacker not being involved with what transpired. Te’o’s press conference on Saturday drew by wide margin the largest attendance among any prospect at the combine.
He spent approximately 15 minutes addressing questions ranging from that controversy, to his horrid showing in the national championship game against Alabama.
Te’o was even asked whether he’s currently dating “anyone in real life.”
Te’o became a national story when his supposed girlfriend, Kekua, was believed to have died of leukemia during the college football season. The truth, however, was she never existed, and it was later found out that Te’o had become a victim of an elaborate Internet hoax commonly referred to as “catfishing.”
“Catfishing” was derived from the 2010 movie “Catfish,” in which a man learns that his online relationship with a woman wasn’t real. Instead, the woman he believed he was involved with was a totally different person than the one whose pictures he had seen on the Internet.
Te’o spoke very few specifics about the incident, saying, “I’ve said all I need to say about that. How I’m handling it going forward is what I’m doing; focusing on the moment, focusing on football and the combine. Not everybody gets this opportunity to be here. I’m sure there’s thousands and thousands of people who would like to be here in Indianapolis.”
Te’o said “quite a few teams asked” about the controversy.
“They’ve wanted to hear it from me what the truth was. They haven’t really said anything about it affecting me (in the draft),” Te’o said.
Asked to summarize the truth, Te’o said, “Just I care for somebody, and that’s what I was taught to do. Ever since I was young, if somebody needs help, you help them out. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up the way I thought it would.”
After the initial controversy was brought to light, it took several days before Te’o responded to tell his side of the story. Asked why it took so long, the linebacker said, “It was just a whirlwind of stuff. A 22-year-old, 21-year-old at that time, just trying to get your thoughts right. Everybody was just kind of chaos for a little bit. So you let that chaos die down and wait until everybody’s ready to listen.”
Te’o’s teammate from Notre Dame, tight end Tyler Eifert, was among the listeners.
“He’s handled the whole situation really well considering the circumstances and how big it blew up to be,” Eifert said. “I don’t know why it should (affect Te’o’s draft status). If it does, it does. He can’t control that at this point. There is no handbook on how to handle that situation. He took the advice of people that he trusted, and I think he handled it as well as he could have. I'm sure he'll be a little bit nervous but there is nothing for him to be nervous about. He didn't do anything wrong.”
The reality, however, is that’s for the teams to decide. Te’o understands the situation.
“Yeah, they want to be able to trust their player. You don’t want to invest in somebody you can’t trust,” Te’o said. “With everybody here, they’re just trying to get to know you, get to know you as a person and as a football player.”
But controversy aside, in terms of football players at the middle linebacker positions, there seem to be better options. That part of the reason it’s highly unlikely the Bears will use the 20th pick on Te’o.
Besides that, addressing other needs is more important.
The Bears should look beyond Manti Te'o for their first-round pick.