Solid if not spectacular. A key contributor. A vitally important reserve player. A great "insurance policy" in case of injury issues. Those were just some of the phrases that one could use to describe the type of impact upon the Saints defense last season, that was made by 6th year Saints linebacker Manti Te'o.
Te’o signed a two-year deal last offseason, appearing in all 16 games and making 11 starts for the Saints in 2017. His play was solid, if unspectacular,
Te’o had a good debut season with the Saints in 2017, after he signed a 2-year deal with the Black and Gold after returning from a torn Achilles injury that he had suffered previously during his final year with the Los Angeles Chargers — the team that originally took him in the 2nd Round (#38 overall) of the 2013 NFL Draft out of the University of Notre Dame.
He ended up playing in all 18 games (including the playoffs) and he stepped up big-time down the stretch after fellow free-agent signee and starting "Mike" / Middle LB A.J. Klein was lost for the remainder of the year and placed on injured reserve due to a a sports hernia surgery.
Te'o finished the season with 62 total tackles (42 solo, 20 assisted) which ranked 4th on the team overall; along with a fumble recovery, 3 passes defensed / batted down, and 8 run "stuffs" at the opponent's line of scrimmage or in their backfield.
Again: a solid if not spectacular season, but nonetheless his future with the club heading into this upcoming 2018 NFL season that begins in a month and a half from now, remains somewhat in doubt.
That's because despite the nice overall performance that Te'o managed to have last year, he is limited athletically; and it was one of the major reasons why Saints brass went out this past off-season and added yet another inside linebacker when they spent big money on former New York Jets middle linebacker Demario Davis in free agency.
Because Te’o isn’t a contributor on special teams, he very possibly could become the proverbial "odd man out" this summer when the Saints make their Final 53-man Roster cuts after the end of the Pre-Season later next month.
Assuming Klein returns to full health, there's also the return of 2nd year player Alex Anzalone — a player nearly twice as fast and who has a lot more upside at the moment than Te’o — and if Anzalone continues to prove his worth on punt and kickoff returns on special teams (an area in which Te'o struggles), it means that Te'o's time in NOLA might even come to an inglorious end after only 1 season.
If not outright released, then certainly Te'o could see a reduction in playing time.
Te’o was identified by ESPN beat writer Mike Triplett recently as the team's one veteran "roster bubble" player that he feels could possibly be in jeopardy of seeing his role scaled back; as the team's 2018 Training Camp that begins in one week from this coming Wednesday, quickly approaches.
Triplett observes that Te’o is currently projected to be a back-up behind Davis, Klein, Anzalone, and even Craig Robertson; and since he doesn’t bring any added value on special teams, it will probably make him a weekly inactive on Game Days, barring another critical injury to one of the other linebackers.
However one thing that's important to note: it would be SHOCKING to see the Saints make it through the entire season without either Klein or Anzalone getting hurt at some point during the season, given both of those players' recent injury issues.
And then of course, there's always the possibility that Te'o's performance here in Training Camp and the Pre-Season that gets underway on August 9th at Jacksonville against the Jaguars, could actually be his saving grace.
Te'o will once again be receiving guidance from Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who was Te'o's position coach previously with the Chargers during the 2015 season, when that team was still based in San Diego before moving up the Pacific Coast to Los Angeles.
Nolan had a big hand in Te'o's solid performances last season, mainly because as Canal Street Chronicles film analyst Walter "Deuce" Windham notes in his brand new (and fantastic) film analysis right below, that the coach made sure to put Te'o in the best possible situations to succeed.
Specifically, Windham says that when he is able to navigate through traffic and flow freely to the football while keeping himself "clean" (and isn't forced to fully engage on-coming blockers), Te'o can be very effective — particularly at stopping the run.
Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily guarantee him a Final Roster spot this season.
What hurts Te'o the most: a lack of pure speed.
Windham notes that the 27-year old Te'o doesn't have elite speed off the edge and isn't quite fast enough to run sideline-to-sideline at times to make a play, as a faster LB (like Demario Davis) can do.
He simply just isn't athletic enough to get to the outside and seal off the sideline, as say a Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers would be.
It goes without saying that he also isn't the greatest at covering much faster RB's and TE's in pass coverage situations, which is why he's only a 2-down (1st and 2nd down) linebacker.
Additionally, he still struggles at times to stack / shed on-coming blockers, which is why Nolan was certain to put him in situations last year (specifically against the opponent's run game) where he could be successful.
As the team convenes next week for Training Camp, Te'o is expected to compete head-to-head with Klein for a starting role at "Sam" / strong side LB; but essentially he'll be competing against the ENTIRE linebacker corps for a chance to remain with the team.
The Saints are likely expected to keep 7 linebackers total on the Final 53-man roster; and right now you'd have to think that Te'o is behind Davis, Klein, Anzalone, and Robertson; and just barely ahead of Hau'oli Kikaha, Nathan Stupar, and Jayronne Elliott.
But Kikaha can also play with his "hand in the dirt" as a defensive end, while Stupar is considered a special teams "ace"; so it probably makes for a projected battle between Te'o and Elliot for that one remaining spot in the next few weeks. a distinct possibility.
There isn't any question that Te'o quickly became a favorite among many Saints fans last year; for both his toughness and tenacious attitude as well as his notable ability from time to time to come up with a "big play".
Those were intangibles that clearly helped the Saints defense last season.
And you'd also have to think that his value as a key back-up with the versatility to play multiple positions (the "Mike" and "Sam" LB spots) would make him indispensable, especially if injuries rear their ugly head again.