Los Angeles Chargers inside linebacker Manti Te’o will become a free agent on March 9, 2017, after his rookie contract expires. He has been a starter for most of the time he has been a Charger after Tom Telesco traded up in the 2013 NFL Draft to select him with the 38th overall pick (in part because Telesco has a mild allergy to fourth round picks). He has only played 38 out of a possible 64 games since he was drafted. Te’o has been injured in every season as a professional and has never been better than an average contributor
Since drafting Te’o in 2013, the Chargers have drafted three other inside linebackers, spending a second round pick on Denzel Perryman in 2015, as well as fourth and fifth round picks on Joshua Perry and Jatavis Brown in the 2016 draft. In addition to those three, the Chargers also signed Korey Toomer off the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad during the 2016 season. All four are at least debatably superior players to Manti Te’o.
Of the Chargers four other inside linebackers, only Perry is not obviously a better player than Te’o. The only real argument in favor of Te’o is that he has become a leader on the Chargers’ defense, but the best season the defense has had during his career came in 2016 when he played only three games. Also, while leadership is not without value, it is significantly less important than the ability to play NFL-caliber linebacker. Te’o has the skillset of a backup with the upside of a mediocre starter. While he is theoretically approaching his athletic prime at 27-years-old, he is more likely approaching the time where he will be most grossly overpaid relative to his production.
If it’s possible for the Chargers to retain Te’o at something closer to the veteran minimum than what a legitimate starter may command, you could make an argument for bringing him back. However, it seems unlikely that Te’o will be signing for anything approaching the minimum and frankly, any time he takes away from Brown, Perry, Perryman, or Toomer makes the defense significantly worse regardless of what kind of leadership he brings.
There is also the switch from a base 34 to base 43 to take into account and Te’o is, if anything, even less valuable in Gus Bradley’s defense than he was in John Pagano’s. When deciding who should return for 2017, Te’o should be an easy choice for the Chargers and Tom Telesco to let walk.