Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o put together one of the best college football careers ever. He's been known as a tackling machine since he was a freshman, but he established himself as more his senior season.
Te'o finished 2012 with team-leading numbers of 103 tackles and seven interceptions. His stellar play helped rank Notre Dame as the second-best scoring defense with 10.3 points a game.
Te'o finished his senior season as the Heisman runner-up and a unanimous All-American selection while leading the Fighting Irish to an undefeated record before the national championship game against Alabama. He's ended his collegiate career with a reputation of being a tackling machine, ball hawk, leader and the nation's best middle linebacker.
Now it's time to see how he handles football on Sundays.
Tremendous work ethic, great leader and a playmaker on defense. All three holes Te'o can fill for the Lions. Makes sense to draft him and build around him, right?
Not so fast.
The big-name label has fans fooled again that drafting Te'o in the first round is a logical choice. It's hard to rule against Te'o being successful in the NFL. But drafting him with the first pick would be a bad decision.
For the past two offseasons, the Lions were in heavy pursuit to bring free agent Stephen Tulloch to Detroit. He played on a one-year deal in 2011, but was re-signed to a five-year contract this offseason. Tulloch has been one of the most consistent players on defense, and it would be foolish to move him at this point.
If the Lions drafted Te'o to play with Tulloch, it could be detrimental to the defense if Detroit was forced to move either linebacker to the outside, especially Tulloch. Te'o would be a better option to play on the outside with his interceptions and improved coverage this season. Tulloch isn't great in coverage and doesn't produce a high number of interceptions.
The Carolina Panthers took a similar gamble this past year when they drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly came out of Boston College as a middle linebacker, but was moved to the outside in favor of Jon Beason.
Beason had just suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the season opener of 2011, creating a big need at linebacker. Beason, like Tulloch, signed a big contract extension before his injury, assuring he will stay for the long haul in Carolina. Beason again is dealing with a serious injury after tearing his ACL early in the 2012 season.
The Lions, however, will have a need at outside linebacker with veterans DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant becoming free agents. Both had good 2012 seasons but could become cap casualties. If that turns out to be the case, Detroit might need new linebackers, but none with its first selection.
The Lions have 27 free agents listed for this offseason and have limited cap space. Detroit will have to succeed during the draft and find help at better positions. There is top-end talent at the No. 5 spot, where the Lions can upgrade at more important positions like cornerback, right tackle or defensive end.
Even if the Lions decide to start new faces at linebacker, two names immediately come to mind: Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead.
The Lions traded up to select Whitehead in the fifth round of 2012. He and Lewis earned lots of praise from the coaching staff this offseason (h/t prideofdetroit.com), but didn't see limited time on defense or outside of special teams. If these two are as good as the coaches say they are, it's time for them to show it as starters or at least key contributors on defense.
Also, it's time for general manager Martin Mayhew to find some mid-round gems through the draft instead of spending high picks on the best players available. Winning franchises find gold late in the draft; the Lions have struggled in that aspect.
There are patterns of Te'o's game that are also alarming as well.
While he emerged as a playmaker this season, the All-American never had an interception before this season. Te'o also was invisible during the 42-14 national title blowout against Alabama. Te'o finished with only three unassisted tackles, and the Fighting Irish were picked apart on the ground, surrendering 248 yards.
The Notre Dame linebacker's best attributes are his leadership and intangibles. While the Lions are in need of a leader, the most important man who needs to fill that void is head coach Jim Schwartz.
Teams take on the personality of their head coach, and Schwartz so far has set a bad example. However, the Lions found their field leaders on the sidelines or not ready for the position. Veterans like Nate Burleson and Louis Delmas can't do much leading while they nurse their injuries from the sidelines.
It's also become evident that quarterback Matthew Stafford may have talent, but is not yet a leader of this football team. While his players are not able to step up as leaders, it becomes Schwartz's responsibility to weather the storm.
Detroit can't keep gambling and risking its most valuable picks with the best available players. The biggest holes need to be filled right now before taking chances on positions that are solidified. Te'o will end up being a supreme leader for some team, but that can't be the Detroit Lions.