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Manti Te’o tries to rebound

Jon Gruden can be annoying as hell with his delivery and silly phrases, but he does tend to cut to the heart of the matter when interviewing quarterbacks and other draft prospects in his Gruden Camp on ESPN. Here we have a tough interview where Gruden grills Manti Te’o about the Alabama game. He offered Te’o the chance to blame his lackluster performance on being distracted by the fake girlfriend fiasco, but Te’o doesn’t bite and takes responsibility for his play.

This is an example of how Te’o is starting to redeem himself in the eyes of some scouts. He had a brutal run of bad impressions, from the girlfriend drama, to the horrible performance against Alabama to the even worse performance at the scouting combine.

But the word is out that Te’o is impressing NFL executives in how he’s handling his interviews. That’s a big deal given how much pressure this kid is facing. Also, and more importantly, he looked a lot better and ran faster at his pro day at Notre Dame. As the focus turns more to football, Te’o starts to look better.

The issue of course for Te’o is dealing with the inevitable razzing in the locker room. He can probably squelch a lot of talk in the future if he visits a website to buy an engagement ring for a real girl, versus using a website to chat with a fake one. Or maybe just showing up with a real woman on his arms in a way that’s natural and not staged. Either way, the kid will have to do something, but he shouldn’t have much problem finding willing partners.

Of course, Te’o won’t say that. He says that tackles on the field will win over teammates, and of course that’s the right answer to give, mostly because it’s true. But few of us believe he wasn’t distracted during the Alabama game, and that’s the biggest issue. In the end, he needs to get beyond this personal drama, and well scripted mea culpa answers won’t be enough.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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NFL Quick Hits: Dumervil, Urlacher and the mess that is the Bills

+ After building two Super Bowl teams in the past 13 years, it’s hard to fathom why people continue to doubt Ozzie Newsome. Once Ed Reed signed with the Texans last week and joined the likes of Dannell Ellerbe, Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard and Paul Kruger as players that will no longer don purple and black, people started to question Newsome’s decision making. But he reminded everyone that he’s one of the best GMs in the NFL when he inked Elvis Dumervil to a five-year, $35 million contract over the weekend. Dumervil’s cap hit this year will only be $2.5 million, which is why Baltimore was able to fit him under the cap. Granted, his contract will still add up to $35 million over the next five years but for the time being, Newsome displayed shrewd maneuvering by landing the top free agent on the market in the same offseason that he gave franchise quarterback Joe Flacco a massive new deal. Dumervil will return to outside linebacker in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense after leading the NFL in sacks from that same position in 2009. The Ravens, folks, are going to be just fine.

+ Ted Thompson once drafted Justin Harrell in the first round. Ozzie Newsome invested top selections in Kyle Boller and Mark Clayton. Jerry Reese whiffed on Aaron Ross. The best GMs in the NFL all miss – it’s part of the gig. But Buddy Nix’s lack of foresight in the past two drafts could ultimately cost him his job. Since Nix drafted him with the 34th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Aaron Williams has struggled mightily in coverage and is entering a make-or-break season. For those that need a refresher, Williams was selected ahead of both Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. It’s hard to blame Nix for passing on Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder in the first round that year, but Kaepernick could have been a perfect fit in former head coach Chan Gailey’s system. Nix also selected former NC State receiver T.J. Graham ahead of Russell Wilson in the third round last April, and we all know how that turned out for the Seahawks. Again, it’s not completely fair to criticize Nix for passing on Dalton, Kaepernick or even Wilson, because a lot of GMs of quarterback-needy teams missed on those players, too. But when you miss on those guys because you handed Ryan Fitzpatrick a six-year, $59 million contract and now you have to play Russian roulette with Geno Smith, Matt Barkley or Ryan Nassib, you leave yourself open for condemnation. It’s not all Gailey’s fault for the current mess that resides in Buffalo.

+ Whether they wait until Nnamdi Asomugha and/or Charles Woodson’s market value drops even lower or attempt to out-draft Craig Dahl (that shouldn’t be difficult), it’s hard to imagine that 49ers GM Trent Baalke is done upgrading his secondary. But I also don’t think San Francisco is overly concerned about its defensive backfield. When Justin Smith tore his triceps against the Patriots last December, the 49ers were victimized for 443 yards through the air and their secondary was never the same after that point (neither was Aldon Smith for that matter). It’s not the back end that makes San Francisco’s defense so dangerous, but its front seven. That’s why its understandable that Baalke didn’t want to invest $40-plus million to retain safety Dashon Goldson, who signed with the Bucs two weeks ago. Baalke has a knack for finding bargains in free agency (see Carlos Rogers in 2011), so look for the Niners to sign a stopgap like Asomugha and then invest heavily in their defensive line in next month’s draft.

+ The Bengals have been reluctant to hand out big money deals in the past but they would be wise to lock up franchise player Michael Johnson now. Based on the deals that Elvis Dumervil (five years, $35 million) and Cliff Avril (two years, $13 million) just signed, Cincinnati is overpaying Johnson this year at his $11.2 franchise number. That’s not to suggest that the 26-year-old pass rusher isn’t worth the investment because he is. But if the Bengals view him as a core piece of their defense, then it behooves them to work off of the contracts that Dumervil and Avril just signed. Otherwise, they risk having Johnson’s price tag go up when Jared Allen, Justin Smith, Justin Tuck, Michael Bennett, Matt Shaughnessy and Brian Robison hit the market, too. This the shrewd decision that has often eluded Mike Brown and his front office in years past.

+ As much as it pains Chicago fans to admit, it’s time for the Bears and Brian Urlacher to move on. If anyone wants to question what Urlacher meant to the Bears’ defense over the past decade, all you have to do is go back to 2009 when he missed 15 games due to a dislocated wrist. Nick Roach was forced into the starting lineup and the entire unit suffered because opponents had success attacking the middle of the field. But under new head coach Marc Trestman and second-year GM Phil Emery, the Bears are undergoing a facelift and part of that process is saying goodbye to aging vets. Urlacher’s play last year dipped dramatically and Trestman may not want to stick with the Tampa 2 scheme that Lovie Smith installed when he took over in 2004. Simply put, why invest money in a player that is no longer the focal point of the franchise? (Sentiment isn’t a good reason.) For better or for worse, Emery is building a team around Jay Cutler, which is one of the reasons why he hired Testman and invested over $7 million a year in blindside protector Jermon Bushrod. It’s understandable that Urlacher still believes he can contribute and it’s disappointing that he feels as though Chicago disrespected him with a $2 million-per-year offer. But Emery has to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears – not for Brian Urlacher. This is a painful, yet logical time for both parties to part ways.

Fixing Olympic boxing

This is a very interesting article about how boxing in the Olympics will no longer require headgear. The sport will also move to the pro-style 10-point scoring system.

I haven’t paid attention to Olympic boxing for years, but this article makes me interested again.

Five March Madness Fresh Faces

March Madness is a great time of the year for die-hard sports fans and casual fans alike. The close games and the upsets provide plenty of drama on the court, and every year we have new heroes that come out of nowhere. It’s always amazing to see a young kid in his first NCAA tournament become a household name overnight with a stellar performance on the big stage.

After day one yesterday (I don’t count the Wednesday games), we already have some freshman making a splash, and we have others we can expect to hear from today as well.

Fourth-seeded Michigan streaked to a 71-56 win over 13th-seeded South Dakota State on Thursday night, and not surprisingly, freshman phenom Glenn Robinson III had plenty to do with the win. Robinson scored a team-high 21 points, chalking up a whopping 17 in the second half, and he also grabbed six rebounds. His three three-pointers in the second half really fueled Michigan. The Wolverines are very young, so Robinson and the other freshman will have to come up big for this team to go far in the tournament. They wilted in the Big Ten tournament, but maybe that adversity will get them ready to make a run now.

Freshman Gary Harris of Michigan State had a solid night as the third-seeded Spartans defeated 14th-seeded Valparaiso 65-54. Harris wasn’t the leading scorer, as Derrick Nix dominated while dropping 23 points and a career-high 15 rebounds, but Harris was making jumpers as he contributed 10 points to the winning effort. With the 6’ 9” and 270 pound Nix powering the offense from the inside, Harris and Keith Appling can stretch the defense by making outside shots. On a good team like Michigan State, a freshman like Harris doesn’t have to be the star. He just has to know his role and do his job.

Today will feature a number of talented freshman making their tournament debut, and Shabazz Muhammad will be getting a ton of attention as the sixth-seeded UCLA Bruins take on the eleventh-seeded Minnesota Gophers. Muhammad has versatility on offense as he averaged just under 18 points per game while averaging over 5 rebounds per game. He is very effective down low but he also shot 40 percent from the three-point line. With guard Jordan Adams suffering a broken foot, there will be plenty of pressure on the freshman to step up on the big stage. The Pac-12 is off to a great start in the tournament which has silenced some critics, but we’ll see if UCLA can get past a Big-10 team in the first game.

The Kansas Jayhawks are a number one seed so we can’t expect too much drama on Friday in their opening game, but it will be interesting to see how freshman Ben McClemore looks in his tournament debut. This guard averages 16.4 points per game. He’s deadly shooting from the outside, and we’ve seen in the past that hot shooting can propel a team to the Final Four. McClemore is shooting 44 percent from three-point land. This kid could be a top pick, if not the top pick, in the NBA draft so the pressure goes well beyond a potential Kansas run to the title. You never know just how good a player can be until he’s tested at crunch time, so it will be fun to see what this kid can do.

We all love to focus on points and stats when evaluating players, but of course the game of basketball can’t be simply defined by stats. Indiana has a real shot at a national title, and Yogi Ferrell is a big part of that success. The freshman point guard has solid stats with 7.8 points and 4.2 assists per game, but his leadership and solid ball-handling make life much easier for stars like Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. There’s every reason to believe this kid will carry this composure into the tournament. James Madison shouldn’t pose much of a problem in the first game but then the real fun begins.

Enjoy the games and hopefully we’ll see some smiles on the faces of these young faces as they march through this incredible tournament.

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Ten observations from the first week of NFL free agency

1. The Percy Harvin trade was outstanding for the Seahawks. They landed a proven playmaker for a first-round pick that may-or-may not wind up being a valuable piece, a seventh-rounder that probably would have been a long-shot to make an already stacked roster, and a third-round selection in 2014 that may-or-may not turn into a solid role player. It’s clear that Harvin wore out his welcome in Minnesota and the Vikings did what they had to do in order to rid themselves of the headache. But this is a dynamic, versatile player that adds a much-needed element to Seattle’s offense. He did miss seven games last season due to an ankle injury, but he missed only three games in the three years prior and his migraine issues have seemingly been resolved. (After being diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2010, he hasn’t suffered a migraine in two year.) With Harvin joining Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Sidney Rice, Zach Miller and Golden Tate, I’d match the Seahawks up against any other offense in the NFC right now.

2. Speaking of the Seahawks, the signing of Michael Bennett was a shrewd move by Pete Carroll and John Schneider. Bennett wasn’t impressed with the offer he received from the Buccaneers so instead of being patient while testing the market, he accepted what essentially was a one-year “prove it” deal at $5 million. He had nine sacks with Tampa Bay last season and is versatile enough to play end or tackle in a 4-3 alignment. He more than makes up for the loss of Jason Jones (Lions) and after signing Cliff Avril to a reasonable two-year, $15 million contract, Seattle is prepared from a pass-rushing standpoint to get by while Chris Clemons (ACL surgery) is on the mend. Once Clemons returns, he’ll join a defensive line that features Bennett, Avril and former first-rounder Bruce Irvin, who finished with eight sacks last season as a rookie.

3. After some initial confusion, the Patriots signed Danny Amendola before Wes Welker agreed to terms with the Broncos. He also received less money per year than Welker, which further proves that Bill Belichick and his staff coveted Amendola from the start of free agency (as opposed to countering Denver’s decision to sign Welker). New England was wise to tie up $2.5 million of Amendola’s contract in per-game roster bonuses, meaning the oft-injured receiver will need to stay healthy if he wants to fully cash in on his new deal. Considering he’s caught over 100 passes in five of the last six seasons, it’s almost ridiculous to think that the Pats have replaced Welker. But by signing Amendola, they acquired a player with a similar skill set that is also four years younger. As far as production goes, Welker has been in a league of his own since 2007 but Amendola arguably owns a better pair of hands and has more than enough short-area quickness to play the slot in Josh McDaniels’ offense. Amendola just needs to stay healthy or his value will be greatly diminished over the course of his contract in New England.

4. Considering Brian Hartline led the Dolphins in receiving last season, it’s hard to argue why Jeff Ireland spent a large portion of his cap space on Mike Wallace. He gives Miami’s offense something it desperately needed: A playmaker with the ability to take the top off a defense. But did Ireland really improve his defense or did he make slight upgrades while also spending more money? Both Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe are solid players but Ireland spent a combined $56 million to acquire them on the open market. In one fell swoop, he also released Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who were productive last season for Miami’s defense. It’s not as if linebacker was a need coming into the offseason – Ireland just shifted players around and by doing so, spent more money in the process. Given the mess that are the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins will likely be the only threat to the Patriots in the AFC East next season. Again, it’s not as if Miami hasn’t made upgrades to its roster. But these are hardly calculated decisions by Ireland, whose future in Miami could rest on the moves he made last week.

5. It’s laughable that some are questioning the Falcons’ decision to sign Steven Jackson when they could have just kept Michael Turner. These same folks point to both players’ production over the last four years and the fact that Turner has racked up 60 touchdowns since 2008 compared to Jackson’s 26 TDs over that same span. But Turner’s burst and acceleration have evaporated, and he no longer can create on his own. Too often he would run into the backs of his offensive linemen last year and managed a paltry 3.6 yards per carry. Jackson has lost a step over the years but he still displays some quickness and the ability to beat defenses on the edge. Monetarily-speaking, the two players aren’t comparable either. Turner was set to make $6.9 million in his final year with the Falcons, while Jackson signed for a reasonable $12 million over three years. (Of the amount, only $4 million is guaranteed.) For those that worry about touchdown totals, keep in mind that Turner received 51 red-zone opportunities last season with Atlanta, compared to Jackson’s 27 with St. Louis. Considering Dirk Koetter used Turner as his goal-line battering ram last season, Jackson will have more than enough opportunities to reach pay dirt in 2013. More importantly, he’ll also give Matt Ryan and the dangerous Atlanta offense increased production while on its way to the end zone.

6. The Bears took somewhat of a gamble by signing former Saint Jermon Bushrod to a five-year contract on the opening day of free agency. Bushrod was a top-10 tackle in 2011 but his play dipped last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Bushrod allowed a whopping 46 quarterback hurries, eight QB hits, and four sacks. The hurries and QB hits were more than Chicago’s 2012 left tackle J’Marcus Webb (5 QB hits, 29 QB hurries), although the latter allowed three more sacks. If Bushrod can return to his 2011 form, the Bears will have upgraded the blindside protection of Jay Cutler. But if 2012 wasn’t an anomaly for Bushrod, then Chicago will continue to have a real problem on its hands upfront. They’re still deciding what position 2011 first-round bust Gabe Carimi will play (Chris Williams 2.0, anyone?), and if Webb performs as poorly on the right side next year as he did on the left, Cutler’s days of being under constant duress will live on. Phil Emery still has a lot of work ahead of him when it comes to re-building the mess that Jerry Angelo left him along the offensive line.

7. The $38.5 million over five years that the Rams handed tight end Jared Cook was a lot to give a player that has never caught 50 passes in a single season. (His highest reception total came in 2011 when he caught 49 passes for 759 yards.) But Jeff Fisher drafted the former South Carolina product and as long as St. Louis makes him one of the focal points of its offense, chances are he’ll be worth the price tag. But it’s hard to blame fans for being frustrated after the Seahawks landed Harvin and the 49ers gave up a late-round pick for Anquan Boldin. They look at the current depth chart at receiver and wonder, ‘Is that it?’ The key is Brian Quick. If he develops into the player the Rams envision he’ll be when they selected him at No. 33 overall last April, then fans will take comfort in the fact that the team didn’t part with multiple picks and $25 million in guaranteed money for Harvin. Chris Givens is already entrenched as a playmaker on one side and with Cook testing defenses down the seam, the Rams really only need that outside-the-numbers weapon to make their passing game hum. In a perfect world that player will be Quick, and then St. Louis could supplement its depth at receiver by drafting another wideout or acquiring a veteran this spring. (Don’t rule out Nate Washington, who the Titans might release in the coming weeks.) If the Rams missed on Quick, then the present fears will be amplified down the road.

8. Some of the contracts handed out to offensive linemen this week were staggering. I mentioned Bushrod’s five-year, $36 million deal, but there were more head-scratching decisions made by other NFL front offices. Andy Levitre is a solid player and the Titans needed to upgrade their offensive line this offseason. But $46.8 million is an astounding figure for a guard. Sam Baker has only had one productive year since the Falcons reached on him in the first round of the 2008 draft, yet they decided to hand him $41.5 million over six years. With some of the money that has been thrown around in free agency thus far, you can’t blame Jake Long for waiting until he receives the offer he wants.

9. Jets owner Woody Johnson didn’t exactly squash the notion that cornerback Darrelle Revis would be traded at some point this offseason. “No team is just one player away, maybe with the exception of the quarterback,” Johnson told reporters. “You can’t be distracted by one player. You have to look at everything.” Johnson went on to say that the team would like to have Revis back, but “it depends.” In typical Jets fashion, it’s unlikely that they get the best of this current situation. Revis is coming off an ACL injury and thus, his value has never been lower. The Jets are also in cap hell because of former GM Mike Tannebaum, so other teams are well aware that New York doesn’t have the cap space to pay Revis what he wants long-term. With Mark Sanchez under center and Rex Ryan seemingly a dead man walking, there appears to be zero hope on the horizon for “Gang Green.”

10. In any other offseason, a team that needed to fill not one, but two holes at safety would be in full panic mode right now. But the Rams remain in a great spot despite having multiple holes to fill in their secondary. That’s because their options remain plentiful, both in free agency and the draft. Bernard Pollard, Michael Huff, Ed Reed, Kerry Rhodes, Gerald Sensabaugh, Charles Woodson and Tom Zbikowski all remain unsigned, as does Quintin Mikell. A combination of Pollard and either Kenny Vaccaro or Matt Elam would offer an instant upgrade over what St. Louis had at safety last year, provided that Vaccaro or Elam panned out, of course. And the Rams could do much worse than to bring back Mikell for cheap and land a safety in the draft to play centerfield. While it’s a bit unsettling to have clear needs on either side of the ball not addressed quickly in free agency, Jeff Fisher and Les Snead would really have to drop the ball not to land two quality safeties over the next two months.

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