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Te’o girlfriend hoax creates confusion, could impact draft stock

Teo AP

The inspiring story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o became a lot more uplifting during the 2012 season, when it was revealed that he was playing in the wake of a pair of personal losses — his grandmother and his girlfriend had died.

But his girlfriend didn’t die.  She didn’t die because she never existed.

Yes, Lennay Kekua didn’t exist.  Thus, the many media accounts regarding her relationship with Te’o and her eventual passing in September 2012, were false.  As were the on-the-record references to her by Te’o.

They were with me,” Te’o told ESPN after an upset of Michigan State that came days after Te’o’s grandmother died and his girlfriend actually didn’t.  “I couldn’t do it without them, I couldn’t do it without the support of my family and my girlfriend’s family.  I’m so grateful for all the love and the support that all the fans both from Michigan State and Notre Dame and fans around the world for just supporting me and my family and my girlfriend’s family.  I miss them.  I miss them.  But I know that I’ll see them again one day.”

Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey of Deadspinhave unearthed the hoax, exposing it via an item so detailed and compelling that the folks at Notre Dame had no choice but to promptly acknowledge that, indeed, there was no, and is no, Lennay Kekua.

Roughly an hour after the story surfaced, Notre Dame issued the following statement acknowledging that there was no, and is no, Lennay Kekua:  “On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia.  The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax.  While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.”

The Notre Dame statement creates more questions than it answers, because it paints Te’o as the victim.  But how can Te’o be the victim of a false relationship that apparently involved more than online contact between Te’o and someone who never existed?  Te’o and Kakua supposedly had met, she supposedly had visited him in Hawaii, and he supposedly had spent hours interacting with her and her family via phone.

Meanwhile, it’s convenient to say the least that Notre Dame became aware of the hoax the day after Christmas and said nothing about it until after the story broke.

The Deadspin item seems to imply strongly that Te’o wasn’t the victim but the instigator, possibly working with Ronaiah Tuiasosopo (a member of the well-known Tuiasosopo football family) to manufacture a personal tragedy for the purposes of widespread publicity — publicity that nearly resulted in Te’o becoming the first true defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.

Te’o has many questions to answer regarding the situation.  Regardless of whether he does so publicly, he’ll be doing so privately in the interviews and meetings that will precede the draft.  Teams will want to know whether he can be trusted, and likewise what flaw possibly exists in his personality to prompt the fabrication of a girlfriend who would die during the season and draw Gipper-like attention to his football career.

“It could be ugly,” one league source with extensive knowledge of the pre-draft process told PFT.

Actually, it’s already ugly.

UPDATE 6:56 p.m. ET:  Te’o has issued a statement that also paints him as the victim of a hoax.

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Buccaneers re-sign Mike Jenkins

Carolina Panthers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

A pectoral injury limited cornerback Mike Jenkins to one game during the 2014 season, but he’ll get another chance to play in his home state.

The Buccaneers announced Thursday that they have re-signed Jenkins to a one-year contract after his first season in Tampa was wiped out because of his injury. Financial terms weren’t announced, but Jenkins signed with the Bucs for $1.5 million last year.

Jenkins was a first-round pick in Dallas in 2008 and spent five years in the Cowboys secondary, much of it as a starter. He then moved on for 15 starts with the Raiders in 2013 before coming home to play for the Bucs last year. He may not be guaranteed more than a shot at making the 53-man roster, but the Bucs don’t have much experienced depth to go with Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks.

The Bucs also announced that they have tendered contracts to exclusive rights free agents Bradley McDougald and Danny Lansanah. McDougald started the last five games of the season at safety while Lansanah made 11 starts at linebacker and both will at least compete for starting spots again this year.

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Carson Palmer says he’ll be ready for the start of training camp

carsonpalmer AP

The Cardinals were rolling last year until they ran out of quarterbacks.

But they had some good news Thursday, as the best one of the lot said he planned on being ready for the start of the 2015 season.

I’ll be ready for training camp,” Carson Palmer said, via Darren Urban of the team’s official website.

Palmer said his recovery from last November’s torn ACL was going well, and he’s running and cutting now. As with many players in his spot, he wants to push things a bit, saying “you want to jump into everything and you have to slow yourself down.”

Palmer said he hopes to get some reps during OTAs, though he knows coach Bruce Arians will likely hold him back.

But a simple physical recovery isn’t all he’s doing to help them. Palmer said he restructured his contract this offseason to create some salary cap room, which the Cards can use to stock more parts around him.

That will be a benefit, and Palmer said he was confident the Cardinals would do something next week to make the team better.

“We know we have a shot. And there are a lot of teams that don’t,” Palmer said. 

While some free agent additions would help, a healthy Palmer is the biggest step toward that goal.

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Dolphins remain expected frontrunners for Suh

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Getty Images

There’s no reason to doubt Mike Silver’s report that the Raiders are “planning” to host defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for a visit next week.  (“That’s not the stench of raw sewage in the locker room . . . it’s just a bad batch of potpourri.”)  But there’s also no reason to believe the Dolphins aren’t the frontrunners for Suh’s services.

PFT continues to hear that the team with the best chance of landing Suh is the Dolphins.  And for good reason; owner Stephen Ross previously whiffed on coach Jim Harbaugh, quarterback Peyton Manning, and coach Jeff Fisher.  Ross wants to make a splash, as does new executive V.P. of football operations Mike Tannenbaum.

Ross won the rights to receiver Mike Wallace two years ago, but that hasn’t worked out very well.  Suh could end up working out even better.  Or maybe not.  Until we know whether Suh gives the Dolphins a realistic bump in their on-field fate, Suh will nevertheless create plenty of buzz and sell plenty of tickets and move plenty of merchandise in Miami.

When it comes to a contest between the Raiders and the Dolphins, Ross has ultimate ace in the hole — the absence of state income taxes in Florida.  In California, the rate for the really rich is 13.3 percent.

So if Suh signs a deal that pays him $15 million per year in California, the Golden State will withhold $1.995 million in taxes.  Per year.  In Florida, the Sunshine State will take the grand total of zero dollars and zero cents from Suh’s game checks.

Over the course of a seven-year deal (if Suh is there for all seven), the difference becomes $13.965 million.  In other words, he’d be working nearly one full year out of seven to pay for the privilege of living and working in Califoria.

The only way the Raiders can compete with the Dolphins and $15 million per year would be to enough to get Suh to the same net after federal and state taxes.  Which would be roughly $18 million per year.

The primary alternative for Suh will be staying put with the Lions.  In Michigan, the state income tax rate is only 4.25 percent, meaning that Suh would contribute $637,500 to the state budget every year on a deal worth $15 million annually.

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Age, contract, production, reputation make Marshall hard to move

Brandon Marshall AP

The Bears are trying to trade wide receiver Brandon Marshall. That won’t be easy.

Although Marshall is a five-time Pro Bowler, what he’s done in the past isn’t particularly relevant to what a team would be willing to give up for him now. What’s relevant is that Marshall’s production is declining with age, that he has an expensive contract, and that his reputation around the NFL is less than sterling.

Marshall will turn 31 this month, and last season he had his worst season since his rookie year. Marshall caught just 61 passes for 721 yards before suffering a season-ending injury in the 13th game of the season. That’s a sharp decline in production for a guy who had entered 2014 on a streak of seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Like most players, Marshall has slowed down after his 30th birthday.

Another issue is Marshall’s contract, with a $7.5 million guarantee that comes due on March 12. Any team trading for Marshall would be inheriting that contract, unless Marshall is willing to restructure his deal. Marshall’s cap hit for 2015 is $9,575,000, which is the 16th biggest cap hit for a wide receiver in the NFL. If you’re going to pay a guy Top 16 money, that means you think he’s an above-average No. 1 receiver. Marshall has been an above-average No. 1 receiver in the past, but he’s not anymore.

There are also off-field questions that any team mulling a trade for Marshall would have to consider. Those issues go beyond the legal trouble Marshall faced multiple times early in his career: Marshall has spoken openly about his battle with mental illness, and he deserves credit for seeking treatment. But even if Marshall is now avoiding legal problems, there have been more recent reports that Marshall was a negative presence in the Bears’ locker room last season. Marshall has a reputation as a malcontent, and that’s not the kind of locker room presence teams want to acquire.

Add it all up, and it’s hard to see any team trading for Marshall. If the Bears don’t want him, they may have to cut him.

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Report: Raiders “planning” to host Ndamukong Suh next week

Maurice Jones-Drew, Ndamukong Suh AP

The Raiders are said to have designs on huddling with the top free agent in the Class of 2015.

According to Mike Silver of NFL Media, the Raiders are “planning” to meet with Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh next week, the first of free agency.

Per NFL rules, teams cannot begin to negotiate and have contact with the agents of other clubs’ prospective free agents until 4 p.m. Eastern on Friday, so it’s unclear whether the Raiders are simply being hopeful about meeting with Suh.

Nevertheless, this is a signal that the Raiders, as expected, want to be players for Suh, PFT’s No. 1 free agent. Oakland certainly has the salary cap space to strike a deal. Per Spotrac.com. the Raiders are set to be $58.8 million under the cap in 2015.

Teams can start to host players on free agent visits starting Tuesday, when the new league year begins.

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Report: Patriots join teams showing interest in Brian Hartline

Miami Dolphins v New York Jets Getty Images

The Dolphins didn’t want to bring wide receiver Brian Hartline back for $5.9 million, but they are reportedly still interested in having Hartline return at a lower price tag.

They have plenty of company on that front. Hartline has already visited with the Browns and Bears and is slated to travel to Houston to meet with the Texans, but the list of teams doesn’t end there.

Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that the Patriots are also interested in the former Miami wideout. New England receivers Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are all under contract for 2015 and the team still has 2013 picks Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce on their roster.

Cabot adds that the Colts might also decide to get involved in the Hartline chase. Any further additions to the mix will obviously be contingent on whether Hartline strikes a deal with any of the teams he’s already had conversations with, but the fact that he hasn’t signed anywhere at this point is a pretty good sign that there’s still room to make him an offer he won’t refuse.

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Report: Jerome Simpson visited 49ers Wednesday

Jerome Simpson AP

Ted Ginn isn’t the only veteran wide receiver who paid a visit to the 49ers this week.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com reports that the team hosted Jerome Simpson in addition to Ginn on Wednesday.

Simpson didn’t play in the NFL at all in 2014 after the Vikings released him in September at the conclusion of a three-game suspension that Simpson earned for repeat violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. Simpson served another NFL suspension after a September 2011 marijuana arrest and was arrested again on DUI charges in 2013 before being cited last July on charges of marijuana possession, open container and violating the conditions of his limited drivers license.

Simpson had 48 catches for 726 yards and a touchdown for the Vikings in 2013 and flashed a lot of speed (and jumping ability) with both Minnesota  and Cincinnati when he wasn’t on the suspended list. That might earn him another look, although the off-field issues make it unlikely he’ll get more than an opportunity to earn a trip to training camp from any team that signs him in the offseason.

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Dolphins re-sign Jason Fox to two-year deal

Ryan Tannehill, Lamar Miller, Jason Fox AP

The Dolphins closed the year with Jason Fox as their starting right tackle and it seems they liked what Fox did in his two games with the first team.

The team announced Thursday that they have re-signed Fox to a two-year deal. Fox, who played for the veteran’s minimum last season, was set to become an unrestricted free agent next week, but gave up that option for what agent Drew Rosenhaus tells PFT is a $2.5 million deal.

Dallas Thomas got the first shot at right tackle after Ja’Wuan James switched sides in the wake of Branden Albert’s season-ending knee injury. Thomas got hurt, though, and Fox stepped in and gave them better pass blocking than they’d received with Thomas in the lineup.

If Albert is healthy, Fox will go back to a reserve role in 2015. Last year’s starting center Samson Satele and left guard Daryn Colledge are still set for free agency, so there will likely be more work on the offensive line to come in Miami.

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Stephen Tulloch says he’ll be back in Detroit

Stephen Tulloch AP

Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch said recently that he was hopeful that he would remain with the Lions in 2015 despite his torn ACL in 2014 and a $5.8 million cap hit that some thought might be prohibitive.

Tulloch has learned the answer to that question and it’s the one he said he wanted. The nine-year veteran announced on Instagram Thursday that he will return to the Lions for a fifth season.

“Let’s put all the questions and speculations to rest. I will be back in Detroit for my 10th season this year. I appreciate the Lions organization for believing in me and having the confidence that I’ll be back to the player that I’ve always been. Trust and know I grind hard everyday and will hit the field running when its time to suit up.”

Let’s hope he didn’t celebrate the news too boisterously.

Had the Lions opted to use the franchise tag on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, things may have played out differently for Tulloch. The Lions didn’t go that expensive route, however, and it seems that a healthy Tulloch will be part of the defensive mix regardless of how the defensive line looks in front of him in 2015.

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D.J. Swearinger accused of skipping out on $20K bill for car customization

Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans Getty Images

Texans safety D.J. Swearinger wanted to have some work done on his truck this offseason, but the people who did it say he wasn’t willing to pay for it.

TMZ reports that a police report has been filed in Houston alleging that Swearinger skipped out on a $20,000 bill from Espi Motors for work they did on his pickup truck.

According to the report, Swearinger brought his truck into the shop to have a variety of bells and whistles installed, including matte black paint with a Batman logo, speakers, new wheels, custom grill and a train horn, and then balked at the cost for the work when it was done. He then allegedly took his car from the shop without paying for the work. The shop tried to track Swearinger down, but were unable to do so despite the distinctive look of the truck that Swearinger’s allegedly driving around town.

Per TMZ, police are investigating and neither Swearinger nor the Texans have made any comment.

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Manning passes physical, Elway says an older QB can thrive in Denver

Buffalo Bills v Denver Broncos Getty Images

John Elway won Super Bowls as the Broncos’ quarterback at ages 37 and 38. And he thinks Peyton Manning is well-positioned to win a Super Bowl as the Broncos’ quarterback at age 39.

The Broncos have announced that Manning will be back as the team’s starting quarterback this season, meaning he has passed his required physical. Although Manning ended last season looking like he had slowed down and was struggling physically, the physical exam shows that his surgically repaired neck remains healthy enough for him to play.

And Elway thinks he can play well. Elway says he hired Gary Kubiak to be the Broncos’ head coach in large part because he thinks Kubiak runs just the kind of offense that will be helpful to the aging Manning.

“Peyton could fit in this offense very easily,” Elway said. “It’s a lot more dependent on balance, so therefore Peyton is hopefully not going to have to throw the ball 50 or 55 times. I think for an older quarterback, it’s a perfect system to be in.”

Manning didn’t have to throw it 50 times a game very often before Kubiak arrived, either; he has thrown 50 or more passes only five times in his 53 games as a Bronco. But Elway’s point is well taken: Kubiak will get the Broncos going on the ground, and that will take some pressure off Manning.

Still, if the Broncos’ offense is going to be successful this season, it’s going to be successful primarily because Manning plays more like he played in his first two and a half years with the Broncos, and less like he played over the second half of last season.

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NFL: Greg Hardy can sign contract while on exempt list

Greg Hardy AP

There was no immediate resolution to defensive end Greg Hardy’s standing with the NFL after a Wednesday meeting in New York, which means that Hardy remains on the commissioner’s exempt list with the start of free agency approaching quickly.

The league has clarified one bit of business as it relates to Hardy, though. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said that Hardy and other players on the exempt list are eligible to sign deals.

“There’s nothing to prevent a player on the exempt list without a contract from signing a new one,” Aiello said, via the Associated Press.

That may be true, but Hardy’s pursuit of a new job is still likely to be impacted by his uncertain playing status. He’s not eligible to play in a game until he’s off the list and the league is still working to decide whether Hardy will be suspended under the personal conduct policy as a result of last year’s arrest on domestic violence charges.

Hardy reportedly turned over documents from last July’s bench trial to the NFL. Hardy was found guilty in that trial, but appealed to have a jury trial and the charges were dismissed when his accuser failed to appear for it last month.

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Report: Giants TE Larry Donnell OK after airliner slides off runway

Larry Donnell AP

According to multiple reports, Giants tight end Larry Donnell was a passenger on Delta Airlines Flight 1086, which slid off a runway and through a fence in wintry conditions at New York’s LaGuardia Airport on Thursday morning.

However, Donnell was unharmed, the player’s agent told Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News. The newspaper reported Donnell was returning to New York from Atlanta, where the fight originated, to sign his exclusive-rights contract with the Giants.

Via an Instagram account (beyond_greatnes) that bears his name, Donnell appears to have posted a photo and a video just outside the accident site. (A hat tip to Art Stapleton of the Bergen Record for pointing this out.)

“Plane down” read the caption of one photo of the aircraft in the snow, its nose sticking through the fence.

According to the New York Daily News, which cited a fire department spokesperson, no injuries have been reported from the incident.

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Joe Haden: Justin Gilbert is “growing up”

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

Cornerback Justin Gilbert had a disappointing rookie season after being selected eighth overall by the Browns last year, which led to owner Jimmy Haslam and Gilbert’s teammates to say that he needs to mature if he is going to make good on the promise that made him such a high pick.

One of Gilbert’s teammates in the secondary has been working out with him since the start of the offseason and has seen signs of that growth. Cornerback Joe Haden has been talking to Gilbert about how to “carry yourself like a pro” and says he has seen his lessons taking hold.

“He is growing up,” Haden said, via the team’s website. “Justin’s a very, very talented player. It’s just going to take a little bit of time.”

Gilbert said that he’s learned that playing in the NFL is a business and that he needs to “come to work every day and prepare like it’s your last day” to be successful. That was lacking last season, with General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine both talking about personal issues that they felt held Gilbert back.

Whether or not impending free agent Buster Skrine returns, the Browns could use a big improvement from Gilbert in Year Two as their defense looks like it will have to be a major strength for the team to improve on their results in 2014.

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Dominique Easley avoids knee surgery, hopes to be ready for OTAs

Chicago Bears Vs. New England Patriots At Gillette Stadium Getty Images

The Patriots won’t be picking up their option on defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s contract for the 2015 season, which doesn’t rule out his return on a different deal but could leave the Patriots looking elsewhere for help on the defensive line.

One player that could figure into their decisions up front is Dominique Easley. The Patriots’ first-round pick in 2014 suffered a torn ACL in his final year of college, which helped the Patriots grab him although his knee wasn’t well enough for him to make it through his entire rookie season.

Easley wound up on injured reserve, but Ben Volin of the Boston Globe reports that Easley won’t need surgery to repair the knee this offseason. That leaves him on track to take part in OTAs this spring as he tries to show the team’s coaching staff that he can take on a bigger role next season.

He may not be stepping into Wilfork’s shoes as a nose tackle full time, but having a healthy Easley would give the Patriots more options up front in 2015.

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