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Manti Te’o runs a bit faster at Notre Dame Pro Day

Manti Te'o AP

Manti Te’o has run his long-awaited 40-yard dashes at Notre Dame’s Pro Day, and Te’o was a little faster today than he was at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine.

Todd McShay of ESPN timed Te’o at 4.75 seconds in his first 40 and 4.71 seconds in his second, and that was the general consensus of the other reporters on the scene: Te’o improved upon his 4.82-second 40 from the Scouting Combine by somewhere around one-tenth of a second.

So will this matter? It certainly won’t hurt: Te’o said after the Combine that he’s “obviously” faster than he showed in Indianapolis, and now he can back that talk up with his times.

But a difference of one-tenth of a second in the 40 is probably not going to make a huge difference for Te’o. We talk about 40-yard dashes at this time of year because we don’t have much else to talk about, but what really matters is how a player plays football. The teams that had doubts about Te’o before today will still have doubts, and the teams that liked Te’o before today will still like him.

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Friday morning one-liners

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Marcus Thigpen has provided a jolt to the Bills special teams.

The Dolphins would like to get RB Lamar Miller 1,000 rushing yards.

Better communication is part of the Patriots’ plan to do a better job against the Jets run game than they did earlier this season.

Jets rookie S Calvin Pryor says he’ll prove his doubters wrong.

Injury ended S Terrence Brooks’s rookie season, but the Ravens still see a bright future.

Bengals T Andrew Whitworth isn’t worrying about making the Pro Bowl.

T Joe Thomas longs for a chance to play in a playoff game with the Browns.

TE Heath Miller’s blocking has been a plus to the Steelers run game.

The Texans expect to have LB Whitney Mercilus back in the lineup this week.

Getting traded to the Colts was a boost to CB Vontae Davis’s career.

The Jaguars may be moving on from WR Cecil Shorts after the season.

Titans RB Leon Washington got to celebrate a touchdown with his son on Thursday night.

The Broncos brought TE Dominique Jones back to the 53-man roster.

WR Jason Avant has made himself at home with the Chiefs.

Raiders rookie G Gabe Jackson brings a mean streak onto the field.

Chargers LB Dwight Freeney says age isn’t the reason for a drop in sacks.

Said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones of QB Tony Romo, “It has the potential to be his best season. The factor that would impact the most in my mind would be if we do have the kind of season that we’re all dreaming about here, then it would be his best.”

Former Giants G Chris Snee recounts telling coach and father-in-law Tom Coughlin that he was retiring.

Free agency is waiting for Eagles LB Brandon Graham after the season.

DE Jason Hatcher may not play again for the Redskins this season.

Bears CB Charles Tillman remains a believer in QB Jay Cutler.

If teams with head coaching vacancies come calling, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s stay with the Lions could be a short one.

CB Davon House is making progress in his return from a shoulder injury, but may not play in the final two Packers regular season games.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wants more toughness from his team late in games.

WR Roddy White says the Falcons will be ready with or without Julio Jones in the lineup.

It’s been a tough sophomore season for Panthers DT Star Lotulelei.

The Saints are moving Corey White to safety.

Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy is sad to miss a matchup with Aaron Rodgers.

DE Frostee Rucker will see college coach Pete Carroll when the Cardinals meet the Seahawks this weekend.

The Rams secondary will get its first look at Giants WR Odell Beckham.

There will be plenty of backups on defense for the 49ers this Sunday.

Seahawks T Justin Britt will have a lot to deal with against the Cardinals defensive line.

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Eddie Lacy can’t see himself wearing goggles

dickerson Getty Images

Eddie Lacy can’t really see. But he can’t see himself looking like Eric Dickerson either.

The Packers running back is having problems with his contact lenses, and was limited in practice the last two days because of an irritated eye.

Lacy’s eye started bothering him when he wore his contacts past their normal 30-day shelf life, and now he said he can’t read nameplates across the locker room if he closes his right eye. He’s getting glasses soon, but said he didn’t want to have to wear goggles this week.

Otherwise, could goggles be an option?

I refuse,” Lacy said, via Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “I don’t want to say I refuse because I might because I think it will be better than wearing contacts, but that’s kind of old-fashioned.”

He said he plans to put his contacts back in this weekend, and coach Mike McCarthy said he didn’t think it would otherwise impact Lacy’s availability for this week’s game.

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Browns still confident Johnny Manziel will make plays soon

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After months of hype and hope and anticipation, one awful start isn’t going to change the way the Browns think about Johnny Manziel.

They’d like to see some results sooner, rather than later, but still see bright potential in the first-rounder who flopped in his starting debut last week.

“I feel the same about Johnny as I always have,” Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Johnny is a playmaker. He’s done that throughout his career. Nobody can argue with that at all. There were a couple times in that game he did make some plays. We weren’t able to capitalize on it. . . .

“Johnny is going to have some growing pains. He’s played a type of football that he’s not going to be able to down in and down out in the NFL, but you still want him to do it at times. He did it at times. You know he’s going to have some bad plays from his lack of experience, and we hope to manage those and not put him in those situations as much.”

It almost has to get better for Manziel, if only because it would be hard to be worse. He threw for 80 yards with two interceptions last week against the Bengals, and only ran 38 plays.

It was a disaster by any measure, but Shanahan thinks Manziel is resilient enough to withstand it.

“I think he is,” said Shanahan. “Johnny is a real impressive guy. I don’t think everybody knows really what Johnny is about, and Johnny is very humble. Johnny is a real dude. He’s not going to sit there and BS me or anything. We all were embarrassed by that game.

“Anytime you don’t put up points – it’s not just Johnny – all of us are extremely embarrassed about that. We want to get back to Sunday, and Sunday couldn’t come quick enough. Monday and Tuesday were real rough. Felt a little better Wednesday getting out and practicing. Felt better today getting our practice in, and we just want to get out there again so we can get that bad taste out of our mouths.”

Of course, if he doesn’t play better the next two weeks, people will be wondering if the familiar taste of Cleveland will ever change.

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Doug Marrone: Blame me, not Nathaniel Hackett, for offensive struggles

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The Bills have eight wins and one of the best defenses in the league, which makes it pretty obvious where the blame will lie should they fail to find a door into the playoffs over the next two weeks.

It’s the offense, obviously, and head coach Doug Marrone tried to head off criticism of offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett for that unit’s shortcomings on Thursday. Marrone said that blame should be on him for “anything that happens” with the football team and said that Hackett has been dealt a tough hand when asked about what he’d discuss with Hackett after the season.

“Those are things that I would talk with Nathaniel about,” Marrone said, via ESPN.com. “[When] we go through a process after the season, like everybody knows, we’ll sit down and talk. It’s been two years now. We’ve gone through, I don’t know, how many quarterbacks that we’ve played. We’re playing with a quarterback that wasn’t in our training camp. I think all of those things are pretty big challenges when you’re trying to get things going from an offensive standpoint.”

The quarterback issues have been a challenge, although it’s hard to completely separate EJ Manuel’s failure to develop in his second season from the job done by the person in charge of the offense. Even with C.J. Spiller’s injury, it’s also hard to explain how one of the league’s best rushing attacks from last season is now averaging a toothless 97.5 yards per game.

None of that appears to have Hackett on thin ice in Buffalo, but it’s hard to come up with explanations other than the offense for why the Bills’ playoff drought could extend another season.

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Tough to say what Jaguars have in Blake Bortles

bortles AP

Blake Bortles’s rookie season has not gone according to plan.

When Jacksonville took Bortles with the third overall pick in the NFL draft, the plan was to sit him for the entire year. But the Jaguars were so bad early this season with Chad Henne as the starter that the coaches decided at halftime of Week Three that they had no choice but to bench Henne and see what Bortles could do.

It’s never a good sign when a team has to abandon its plans for developing the franchise quarterback after only 10 quarters, but the good news for Jacksonville should be that it has almost an entire season of tape on which to evaluate Bortles. The problem, however, is that from watching Bortles play, it’s tough to say what the Jaguars have in him.

In last night’s win over the Titans, Bortles showed some progress: He led two 11-play drives that ended in touchdowns, he didn’t have any turnovers, and he used his feet effectively, running for 50 yards and generally doing a good job of avoiding the pass rush despite not getting much protection.

However, Bortles also had a season-low 115 passing yards, a season-low 4.4 yards a pass and a season-low completion rate of 50 percent last night. As his rookie season wears on, Bortles seems to be throwing shorter passes and throwing the ball away more often. The result is that his interceptions are way down (he has just two picks in the last four games after having 12 picks in his first six games), but his yardage is down too, and we’re not seeing him throw downfield successfully. And Bortles’s big arm was one of the main reasons he was viewed as a strong prospect.

The Jaguars’ entire offense has been a mess this season, with a bad line and injuries at running back and wide receiver. As a result, you can hardly blame Bortles for the way he’s become a safe and at times overly cautious quarterback down the stretch. But you also can’t really evaluate Bortles. He’ll be the Jaguars’ starting quarterback next year, but the Jaguars really don’t know if he’s a franchise quarterback they can rely on for years to come.

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Gary Kubiak expects emotional return to Houston

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

The Ravens will be in Houston Sunday, which means offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will be back in town for a game for the first time since being relieved of his duties as Texans head coach last season.

Kubiak said Thursday that he has nothing but “great feelings” for the team and owner Bob McNair after spending eight years as the team’s coach. Things got ugly at the end, but Kubiak took the Texans to their first playoff appearance and victory during a run that left Kubiak “very proud” of the work that was done. As a result of those feelings, Kubiak thinks there will be some emotion come Sunday even though he’s spending the week focused on other matters.

“It’s a big game for our team and it is the next game,” Kubiak said, via the Baltimore Sun. “I’m sure it will be somewhat emotional for me. Come Sunday, it will be a little bit different, but right now, I’ve got my hands full trying to figure out how to block [J.J. Watt] and for us to move the ball.”

If the Ravens score 24 points on Sunday, they’ll set a new franchise record for points in a season. That speaks well of the job that Kubiak has done this season and could help him make his way into consideration for head coaching openings again in the future. Any thoughts of that will also have to wait until after he faces Watt, but there’s little doubt that landing on his feet makes it easier for Kubiak to return to Houston without much bitterness for the way things ended.

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Jimmy Clausen as surprised as anyone he’s starting

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Some Bears players were miffed at learning of Jay Cutler’s benching via social media.

But no one could have been more surprised than the guy who’s starting in his spot.

Former backup Jimmy Clausen said he was stunned at being named starter in this week’s bombshell move by coach Marc Trestman.

I didn’t see it coming at all,” Clausen said, via John Mullin of CSNChicago.com. “It was quite a surprise to me that they wanted to go with me this week. But it’s a great opportunity for me and the team to go out there on Sunday and put our best effort out there and hopefully get a ‘W.’”

Of course, why would Clausen see it coming. He’s the owner of one NFL win, and hasn’t started a game since 2010.

That might be why guard Kyle Long said he was stunned to read about the decision on Twitter.

“I was surprised,” Long said. “But it’s the NFL.”

Almost, anyway.

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Philip Rivers ready to go after “outstanding” day in practice

Philip Rivers AP

Quarterback Philip Rivers doesn’t miss practices often, so his absence from the field earlier this week and reports of a severe back injury led some to wonder if he might actually miss Saturday night’s game against the 49ers.

Rivers’s return to practice on Thursday quieted much of that concern. Coach Mike McCoy’s assessment of Rivers’s work in practice likely put any lingering worry to bed.

“Philip had an outstanding day,” McCoy said, via the team’s website. “A ball did not hit the ground in all of the throws he made today, so Philip was Philip.  He’ll be ready to roll.”

Neither McCoy nor Rivers provided a lot of insight into the nature of Rivers’s injury, although Rivers said that sitting out practice was “the only choice to make” to get him ready to play in a game the Chargers have to win if they’re going to continue pushing for the playoffs through the final week of the regular season. It won’t be easy without wide receiver Keenan Allen while facing a strong defense after two down weeks on offense, but  it’s a better prospect than playing with Kellen Clemens by a pretty wide margin.

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Titans coach complains about calls against Jaguars

New York Jets v Tennessee Titans Getty Images

When you’re one of the worst teams in the league, and you lose to one of the teams you were tied with for that honor, there has to be a reason.

Naturally, it was the officials who doomed the Titans last night, as they lost to the mighty Jaguars.

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said it was no coincidence that Jags quarterback Blake Bortles was able to scramble and continue drives, finishing the night with 50 rushing yards.

They were holding the crap out of us on our defensive lineman when the quarterback got out of the pocket and we didn’t get a call,” Whisenhunt said, via Jim Wyatt of the Tennesseean. “That was very frustrating.”

Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey took a more responsible approach.

“There were a couple of times I got held,” Casey said, “but at the end of the day you have to get off the blocks and keep him contained. You have to collapse the pocket and not let him escape.”

When you’re 2-13 and playing out the string with Clipboard Jesus, I suppose it’s the kind of thing you latch onto.

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Sheldon Richardson: I’m on same level as top defensive linemen

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Positives for the Jets have been few and far between this season, but defensive end Sheldon Richardson is at the top of that very short list.

Richardson won the defensive rookie of the year award last season and has continued to be a force up front for the Jets this season with 6.5 sacks and stout play against the run. That’s left him feeling like he deserves Pro Bowl consideration and a place alongside the best defensive linemen in the league, including the only defensive lineman in years to get his name mentioned in MVP talk.

J.J. Watt, he’s got a few more sacks than me, but it’s the same type of disruption,” Richardson said, via ESPN.com. “He’s a little more active, I’ll give you that, but we have the same type of determination, same heart, same skills. He scores touchdowns, I score touchdowns.”

Richardson scored two touchdowns as a goal-line back last season, but hasn’t had any this season. That’s not the only place a comparison to Watt goes awry this season as he’s pretty far beyond comparison this season. Once you get past him, though, Richardson’s belief that he’s on the same level with the best linemen in the game gets a little bit easier to swallow.

Some of those linemen have earned big contracts, but Richardson is going to wait a while for that payday. The 2013 first-round pick will be heading into his third season, which means that the Jets have at least three more years with Richardson under their control. That gives them time before they’ll have to pony up with a big extension and it gives Richardson time to make comparisons with the likes of Watt a little less of stretch.

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Stop the presses: Rob Gronkowski is growing up

New England Patriots Practice Getty Images

For a guy who was on a television cooking show making sausage jokes this week, it’s odd to hear people talk about the “mature” Rob Gronkowski.

But teammates and coaches say the fun-loving Gronk might actually be turning into an adult.

He’s grown up a lot over the last five years,” Brady said, via Tom Curran of CSNNE.com. “It’s been a lot of fun to see it. His football IQ and understanding of what it takes to be a professional and consistently and dependably be that type of player for our offense that he’s become, has been fun to see.”

Fun Gronk we get. Mature Gronk is going to take some getting used to, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick said it takes time to realize.

“If you meet Rob for 10 or 15 minutes, you might get an impression that may or may not be what it’s like to have him in your office, in a classroom and on the field for six, seven hours a day,” Belichick said. “It might be a little bit different potentially.”

Gronkowski said back issues that plagued him in college and injuries at the pro level have taught him perspective.

“Without a doubt,” he said. “It could be taken away anytime. I’ve seen players come in at a young age and leave at a young age. You just gotta be prepared and perform to your best and be ready every day and don’t take anything for granted.”

Yeah, this is going to take some getting used to.

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Frank Gore puts in limited practice Thursday

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The 49ers appear set to have at least one of their top two tailbacks in the lineup Saturday night against San Diego.

Veteran Frank Gore (concussion) went through a limited practice on Thursday, according to the injury report. Furthermore, head coach Jim Harbaugh indicated Gore was on schedule to play against the Chargers.

The 49ers’ all-time leading rusher, the 31-year-old Gore needs 229 yards to reach 11,000 for his career. He is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Gore paces the Niners (7-7) with 804 rushing yards on 204 carries.

While Gore appears to be progressing, rookie tailback Carlos Hyde (ankle) sat out a second straight practice Thursday. If Hyde were out, Alfonso Smith would be in line to back up Gore, with Phillip Tanner also in reserve.

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With win, Jaguars currently fourth in draft order

Kris Durham, Dwayne Gratz AP

The Titans’ 21-13 loss at Jacksonville puts Tennessee in the lead for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. The outcome also moves the Jaguars down the board to No. 4 overall. Both Jacksonville and Tennessee are guaranteed no worse than a top-six pick in Round One, which will be held April 30 in Chicago.

Here’s how the top 10 picks would look if the season ended today. All non-playoff teams are ordered by record, with each club’s strength of schedule (in parentheses) the first tiebreaker. The 12 playoff teams are seeded based on postseason results and their records.

1. Tennessee (2-13, .483).

2. Tampa Bay (2-12, .467).

3. Oakland (2-12, .571).

4. Jacksonville (3-12, .507).

5. Washington (3-11, .470).

6. N.Y. Jets (3-11, .533).

7. Atlanta (5-9, .495). ***

8. N.Y. Giants (5-9, .505).

9. Chicago (5-9, .513).

10. Carolina (5-8-1, .503). ***

*** — Atlanta and Carolina are still alive in the NFC South race. Neither would pick higher than 21st if the division winner.

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Jaguars players wear “I can’t breathe” shirts in pregame warm ups

Tennessee Titans v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

Several members of the Jacksonville Jaguars joined the growing numbers of athletes making statements with their attire in pregame warm ups prior to Thursday night’s game against the Tennessee Titans.

According to Mike DiRocco of ESPN.com, defensive end Ryan Davis and receivers Cecil Shorts III, Marqise Lee, Ace Sanders and Allen Hurns all donned T-shirts with “I can’t breathe” written on them.

The message was in support of Eric Garner, a New Yorker who died after being put in a chokehold by police officers than attempted to subdue him in July.

Similar gestures have been made by Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and others in recent weeks.

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Underclassmen requests for evaluation down 42 percent

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There could be fewer underclassmen entering the 2015 draft than last year’s record throng of 102 who exited college football early.

A sharp drop in players seeking evaluations for early entry hints at an eventual drop in players choosing to enter early.  NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent points out on Twitter that requests for early evaluation have dropped from 214 last year to 147 this year, a reduction of 42 percent.

If the eventual class of early entries drops by 42 percent, 59 players will choose to enter the draft with eligibility remaining.

Generally speaking, the NFL wants players to remain in college as long as possible, since that ensures a high degree of cooperation from college coaches who prefer to maximize the largely free services they receive.  For players who know with a high degree of confidence that they are ready for the NFL, it’s in the players’ best interests to leave.  An education can be obtained later; cartilage and tendons and other connective tissue, muscles, and bones have a finite shelf life.  Playing for the wholesale cost of an education (plus snacks!) risks the ability of the player to eventually play for as much money as he can earn.

And so the reduction in players seeking evaluations is bad news for those players who ultimately would be deemed to be definitely ready to enter the NFL.  Then again, the early evaluation process is inexact.  A far better system would allow players to make themselves eligible for the draft and then return to school, if they choose to try to enhance their draft stock via more play-for-no-pay.

It wouldn’t be a perfect system, but it would be far more fair than the crapshoot system currently in place, giving players the best possible information before deciding whether to convert their skills into cash.  After all, isn’t that why anyone goes to college in the first place?

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