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Robinson: Te'o, Steelers could be perfect couple

| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

He is an acknowledged leader, an instinctive player who isn't a project but a producer. He was primarily responsible for the long-awaited turnaround of college football's classic program, a feat perhaps even more befitting of a Hollywood movie than “Rudy.”

He would seem to be the prototypical Steelers player. He fits one of their biggest needs. And he could be available at No. 17 when the Steelers make their first-round draft pick on April 25.

If only there wasn't the asterisk beside the name of Manti Te'o that, in the aftermath of the recent revelation that the girlfriend he talked about for months was fictional, has raised considerable questions about the Notre Dame linebacker's previously unquestioned character and judgment.

How well — or how poorly — Te'o begins to erase that asterisk will be one of the most-watched stories at the NFL Scouting Combine that begins this week in Indianapolis. And, no doubt, the Steelers will be among those watching.

Several mock drafts have the Steelers choosing Te'o, who is ranked by many draft evaluators between the 15th and 25th best player available.

“It has nothing to do with the off-field stuff. It's where he grades out as a player,” said ESPN draft expert Todd McShay, who said earlier projections putting Te'o in the top five were much too high. “That's one of the questions: Can he be a really good third-down or passing-down linebacker? I think this year helped him, the seven interceptions. ... He was quicker this year because he took off some weight. You can tell he was moving better than he had in years past.”

Even with the Steelers' multiple needs — wide receiver, defensive line, secondary, offensive line — it might make sense for them to choose an inside linebacker. A year ago they almost certainly would have gone for Dont'a Hightower had David DeCastro not unexpectedly fallen into their laps.

The Steelers badly need inside linebackers, even if 2012 third-round pick Sean Spence returns from his serious training camp knee injury and is ready for the start of the season.

Larry Foote probably won't come back after being one of the NFL's lowest-graded linebackers last season. And backups Brandon Johnson and Stevenson Sylvester could leave via free agency.

Of course, should the Steelers choose Te'o, he would be hounded by questions — at least at first — by the fake girlfriend story and how he kept it going even after he knew it was a hoax.

But once the season started, all that would fade, and it would matter only if Te'o can play. And while he is a natural middle linebacker — a position the Steelers don't have in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense — he would seem to be a good fit for what they do. Notre Dame also ran a 3-4.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. thinks Te'o would be a good fit as Ray Lewis' replacement in Baltimore. Kiper thinks he could be gone before the Steelers choose.

“You love the ball skills, the instincts getting there,” McShay said. “I like him as a player. I think he's a really good player, but I don't think he's a (49ers linebacker) Patrick Willis, that kind of value in a player in terms of the athleticism and the complete game. I don't even think he's a (Panthers linebacker) Luke Kuechly in terms of the complete game. And that's why I have him in the mid-to-late first-round range.”

That's where the Steelers draft. And if it hadn't been for the phantom girlfriend and all the questions about Te'o's judgment and maturity that the unsightly mess created, he and the Steelers would appear to be the perfect couple.

A perfect real-life couple.

Smith not shying away from combine

Some quarterbacks have chosen to skip the NFL combine in recent years, but Geno Smith of West Virginia will not. He is widely projected to be the first quarterback chosen, which means he can only go down — not go up — at the combine.

“He is probably the best all-around quarterback in this class,” McShay said. “But I hesitate because there are still some concerns when you look at him.”

Among them, McShay said, are Smith's inconsistent accuracy and ability to quickly run through his check-down list when his primary target is covered.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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