In the sense of competing for a National Championship, getting their degrees and being captains on the team that brought Notre Dame back, the decisions of Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert to return to South Bend for their senior seasons look like pretty good ones.
“I’d be kicking myself if I couldn’t be a part of this team,” Eifert said in November.
But for the pair’s next step, the move to return certainly improved each player’s draft stock.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr., has Te’o ranked No. 2 on his early big board and Eifert as the best tight end in April’s NFL Draft, although there’s obviously plenty of potential for movement over the next four months.
For Eifert, Kiper’s comments were essentially what coach Brian Kelly has been getting at all year -- the senior’s production may be down, but he’s a much better tight end than he was a year ago. With one game left, Eifert has 19 fewer catches and 179 fewer yards than he did in 2011, when he led all FBS tight ends in receptions and yards.
But Eifert won the Mackey Award -- given to the nation’s top tight end -- in 2012, signaling there are plenty outside South Bend who see him as more than just a pass-catcher.
“He has great ability to adjust, he has great ball skills, go up and get it,” Kiper explained. “And his blocking has significantly improved. He's a complete tight end. … blocking was the big thing he answered very positively and definitively this year.”
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Eifert’s a guy who some Bears fans have keyed on as the solution for the team’s tight end woes, understandable given his success and Kellen Davis’ shortcomings. Others have looked to Te’o as Brian Urlacher’s successor, although having No. 5 suit up for Chicago is far more of a pipe dream.
Kiper expects Te’o to be selected in the first five picks, a rarity for an inside linebacker. But he explained Te’o made strides in his pass-coverage ability, helping ease concerns about his ability to be a three-down linebacker.
But with such a high projection comes added scrutiny -- and despite Te’o’s seven interceptions (most by an FBS linebacker since 2000) there are questions about his ability to be a three-down linebacker.
“There's still going to be some concern about (pass coverage), because at the pro level there's a little different from playing at Notre Dame and the kind of opponents, college players you're seeing,” Kiper explained. “There still are concerns, what his 40 time ends up being, there are people that will say what's his 40 time going to be, how fast will he prove out to be?”
In a normal year, Kiper would project Te’o somewhere in the No. 10-12 pick range, but without an elite skill player entering the 2013 draft he’s likely to be among the first few to come off the board.