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Preseason Power Rankings No. 18: Chicago Bears

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After missing the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, the Bears showed Lovie Smith the door and decided to start a new era with a new head coach, Marc Trestman. Now it’s time to see how the team Trestman inherited fits with the system he plans to implement.

The good news for the Bears is that there’s abundant talent on both sides of the ball, and on special teams. There are a whole lot of Pro Bowl-caliber players on this roster.

The bad news is that the talent was assembled for a different coaching staff, and the Bears may have some growing pains under Trestman.

Our six-person PFT panel voted the Bears in the bottom half of the league, at No. 18. We explore the reasons below.

Strengths.

Say this for Lovie Smith: The guy knew how to build a good defense. Chicago’s defense was excellent last season, and although Smith and Brian Urlacher are gone, most of the personnel remains.

Cornerback Charles Tillman was one of the best defensive players in the NFL in 2012. He routinely took on the opposing team’s best wide receiver, and almost always got the better end of the matchup. It’s telling that in Calvin Johnson’s record-setting season with the Lions, two of his worst games came against the Bears, when Tillman led the way in holding Johnson to 34 and 72 yards. (Johnson averaged 133 yards a game in the other 14 games of the season.) With Tillman at cornerback, the Bears are in good shape against any wide receiver who comes their way.

The Bears’ defensive front seven is also strong. Julius Peppers is 33, but he doesn’t appear to be slowing down and is still one of the league’s top pass rushers. Chicago should be able to count on Peppers for double-digit sacks. Like Peppers, Lance Briggs will turn 33 this season but remains in fine form. Briggs started all 16 games and had another strong season in 2012.

Henry Melton has emerged as one of the league’s best defensive tackles, with six sacks last year and seven the year before. A former college running back who tips the scales at 300 pounds, Melton has a rare burst for a guy who’s big enough to play defensive tackle in the NFL, and at age 26 he’s in the prime of his career.

The Bears have a very good pair of offensive skill position players in wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte, both of whom are among the best in the league at what they do. Marshall is a tough and physical receiver who has long been Jay Cutler’s favorite target, and Forte is versatile enough to be both the Bears’ No. 1 running back and their No. 2 receiver.

Weaknesses.

After Marshall, the Bears don’t have any proven commodities at wide receiver. They’d love to see last year’s second-round pick, Alshon Jeffery, become a solid No. 2 receiver. They’d also love to see Earl Bennett, who plays very well at times but also disappears at times, become a more consistent part of the passing game. But until someone steps up, No. 2 receiver has to be considered one of the Bears’ weaknesses.

Tight end has been a weakness for the Bears the last couple of years, when Kellen Davis averaged barely more than one catch a game. The arrival of Martellus Bennett should make Chicago better there, but Bennett is a long way from elite.

The Bears’ offensive line has long been a weakness, and the No. 1 priority of the offseason was shoring that up. That’s why guard Kyle Long was Chicago’s first-round draft pick, and why left tackle Jermon Bushrod was Chicago’s first priority in free agency. The biggest issue with the offensive line being a weakness has been that it has exposed Jay Cutler to injuries, and backup quarterback has been a major weakness for the Bears. That remains the case this year: If Cutler goes down, Josh McCown will step in, and that’s a significant drop-off.

Changes.

By far the biggest change is the arrival of head coach Marc Trestman, who’s been coaching the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League for the last five years. Trestman has plenty of experience on NFL coaching staffs, but he hasn’t been with an NFL team since he was on the Dolphins’ staff in 2004. It’s not often that NFL teams reach into the CFL ranks for their head coaches, and it will be fascinating to see whether Trestman — who has a reputation as an innovative offensive mind — comes in with fresh ideas that take NFL defenses off guard.

The changes to the coaching staff are also significant, particularly on defense, where Lovie Smith and his Tampa 2 disciples are giving way to Trestman’s new defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker. But Tucker and Trestman have both said that they plan to run very similar schemes to what the Bears have been running during Smith’s time with the team.

The retirement of longtime middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is a major change in the appearance of the defense, but it’s not a change that will have a huge effect on the field. Urlacher was once among the NFL’s best defensive players, but he was noticeably slower last season and didn’t have a lot left. The unfortunate thing about Urlacher’s departure is the way it happened: The Bears decided early in the offseason that they didn’t want him back, while Urlacher didn’t determine until later in the offseason that he was ready to walk away from the game. Urlacher was a great player who deserved the opportunity to say goodbye to the Bears on his own terms, and it was disappointing that it didn’t quite work out that way, as it did for Ray Lewis in Baltimore.

Camp Battles.

Replacing Urlacher at middle linebacker will fall to either D.J. Williams, the former Bronco signed in free agency, or rookie Jon Bostic, the second-round draft pick from Florida. Neither one of them is going to step right in and be the kind of player Urlacher was at his best, of course, but it’s easy to picture either player being an upgrade over the 2012 version of Urlacher.

As a first-round draft pick, Kyle Long is penciled in as a starting guard, but he’ll have to compete to earn the job. Derek Dennis, Edwin Williams and James Brown will all get an opportunity to beat out Long. Matt Slauson, who started all 16 games at guard each of the last three years for the Jets, is expected to be the other starting guard.

Prospects.

How well does Jay Cutler fit in Marc Trestman’s offense? And can Chicago’s offensive line keep Cutler healthy for 16 games? Those are the biggest questions facing the Bears this season.

Defensively, the Bears should look much like they looked last year, and that’s a very good sign. And the special teams, with punter Adam Podlesh, kicker Robbie Gould and returner Devin Hester, should be solid. There’s a lot of reason for optimism there.

But last year the strong defense and special teams weren’t enough to get the Bears into the playoffs thanks to a disappointing offense, and unless Trestman can make significant progress offensively, the Bears will probably fall just a bit short of the playoffs again this year.

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Donnie Henderson, Terry Shea among Spring League coaches

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The Spring League, a six-game (not six weeks, six games) experiment will be launched next week in West Virginia, with a cradle-to-grave campaign that will be done in a matter of weeks, with the last game happening the day before the draft begins. The fledgling league previously has released a list of players; some of the coaches are now known.

According to the Spring League, the coaching staffs will include Donnie Henderson, Terry Shea, Steve Fairchild, and Denny Creehan. It’s unclear whether they will be the four head coaches for the teams that will be playing in the league, or whether they will simply be members of the coaching staffs that are being compiled.

Henderson, former Jets and Lions defensive coordinator who once was on the short list of potential head coaches, spent 2013 through 2016 with the Bills, as the defensive backs coach.

Shea, a former offensive coordinator of the Bears (in 2004) and quarterbacks coach with the Chiefs, Dolphins, and Rams, has not coached at the NFL or major-college level since 2008.

Fairchild, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach of the Rams for 2003 through 2005 and offensive coordinator of the Bills in 2006-07, was out of football in 2016 after three years at Virginia.

Training camp opens next week at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs. The games start on April 15.

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Marvin Lewis: Bengals haven’t talked about trading AJ McCarron

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Any talk of the Bengals trading backup quarterback AJ McCarron is happening only among fans and the media, and not between the Bengals and other teams.

That’s the word from Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who said the Bengals haven’t tried to trade McCarron and no other teams have contacted the Bengals about McCarron.

“AJ McCarron is a valuable member of our football team,” Lewis said. “No one has asked to trade him. We’re not going to go out and seek a trade for AJ McCarron. He’s a valuable member of the team. We’ve said that how many times?”

Browns coach Hue Jackson said this week that he wouldn’t hesitate to make a trade within the division, and some saw that as a hint that he’s interested in McCarron. Jackson was an assistant in Cincinnati for McCarron’s first two seasons, so the two already have a rapport.

But when Lewis was asked what the Browns would need to give up to get McCarron, he suggested it would take the first overall pick. Lewis was laughing as he said that, but he seems to be serious that he values having McCarron as a backup to Andy Dalton, and won’t make a trade unless it’s for the right offer.

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Chase Daniel will get paid plenty by the Eagles to play for the Saints

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Chase Daniel has returned to the Saints, after stints in Kansas City and Philadelphia. Thanks to his contract with the Eagles, the vast majority of his compensation for 2017 won’t come from the team that now employs him.

Per a source with knowledge of the contract, the Saints will pay Daniel a guaranteed base salary of $900,000. Since he had $5 million in fully-guaranteed salary from the Eagles in 2017, he’ll get the remaining $4.1 million from them.

Daniel also can earn up to $3 million in incentives. Because the Eagles agreed to reduce the offset to $2 million, they would get the first $1.1 million of any incentive payments, with Daniel keeping the rest. If my math is correct (and it rarely is), this means that Daniel can make up to $6.9 million in 2017.

Other teams offered better deals than the Saints did, but Daniel chose to return to New Orleans. Although Drew Brees has shown no signs of slowing down at 38, Daniel surely realizes that he possibly will be replacing Brees at some point — especially with Brees entering the last year of his current contract and having no desire to extend it.

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Chargers hire LaDainian Tomlinson as special assistant to owner

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It’s a pretty good step up from assistant to the traveling secretary, though it’s still hard to tell exactly what LaDainian Tomlinson will be doing.

The Chargers announced that the former running back has joined the team as special assistant to the owner.

The team release said Tomlinson “will support the organization and expand its community outreach as the franchise continues the transition to Los Angeles.”

“L.T. is one of the most beloved and iconic Chargers of all time,” Chargers owner Dean Spanos said in a release. “His active involvement in our fight for Los Angeles is vital, and he represents the very best of what it means to be a Charger on the field and in the community.”

The retired running back and future Hall of Famer is expected to remain in his current role with the NFL Network, according to co-worker Ian Rapoport.

But with his new ceremonial post, he continues to add to a pretty aggressive PR effort as the Chargers try to carve out their niche in L.A.

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Bills owner says Whaley and McDermott are on the same page

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With increased speculation that new Bills coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Doug Whaley aren’t on the same page, owner Terry Pegula tried to quiet that talk.

Via Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Pegula dismissed those reports during an interview at the owners meeting.

“We just spent [Tuesday] afternoon working together, the three of us,” Pegula said. “Those guys get along great. They’ve been making some key decisions and they work well together.”

Pegula cited as evidence the way they worked through restructuring Tyrod Taylor’s contract, keeping the incumbent quarterback around and taking away what some thought might be an issue between the coach and the G.M.

“That was Doug and Sean working very diligently, digging up everything, directions we could go and what not and the decision was unanimous that we bring Tyrod back with the new contract and we’re all happy with that,” Pegula said.

Asked about reports that Whaley could be let go after the draft and that McDermott has some possible replacements in mind, Pegula replied: “I don’t know where that report came from; it’s erroneous.”

The Bills are working hard to present an appearance of competence, beefing up their efforts at image and public relations.

But the biggest thing they could do is win some games. If that’s going to happen, it’s crucial that Whaley and McDermott have a clear understanding of each other’s expectations, so Pegula better be right about their compatibility.

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Jim Caldwell’s not worried about his contract status

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Most coaches never get to a lame duck season, either ending up fired or extended before getting to the final year of a contract.

But Lions coach Jim Caldwell is handling it the way he seemingly handles everything — evenly.

“We’re not going to discuss anything dealing with the contracts,” Caldwell said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “I mean, that doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t.”

To many, it would.

Caldwell’s entering he final year of the four-year deal he signed in 2014, and he’s gone to the playoffs two of his three seasons. But he’s also been joined by a new General Manager who didn’t hire him, and the 27-21 record is balanced by the lack of a playoff win.

G.M. Bob Quinn would only say he had “nothing to announce,” and Caldwell remained unfazed about the lack of security that most coaches see as a necessity, especially considered the relatively successful run he’s enjoyed.

“It’s like I said before, I’m not concerned with anything other than how we get our team better, plain and simple,” Caldwell said. “Contract talks and all these kind of things get only about two or three people excited, the two or three [reporters] sitting at this table. But other than that, it doesn’t matter to people. We’re focusing on our team and how we can get it better. . . .

“I’m not going to confirm or deny anything in that regard, but I can just tell you this, that, when I was in college, it was every year, because that’s all you had was a one-year contract, so it’s normal for me, in that regard. But I’m not saying either way. But you asked me have I worked on a one-year deal before, numerous times.”

Caldwell’s unflappable manner isn’t for everyone, but he’s also created something approaching stability there. Which in Detroit, can’t be taken for granted.

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Thursday morning one-liners

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Bills coach Sean McDermott wants to be up-tempo in practice, and some former Panthers should help that process.

The Dolphins are serious about keeping their offensive core together.

The Patriots were reportedly among the teams to inquire about trading for Seahawks CB Richard Sherman.

The Jets conducted a private workout with North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky.

The Ravens have some competition at TE which they’re interested to see.

Bengals CB Adam Jones continues to get support from the team.

The Browns are promising to “stay aggressive” at QB, after paying $16 million for a second round pick.

No one’s taking Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement threat seriously.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien is excited to get Wes Welker into coaching.

Colts QB Andrew Luck’s shoulder issues were a major problem last year, obviously.

Seahawks DE Michael Bennett took a shot at the poor Jaguars.

The Titans and Bucs don’t play each other, but they watch each other a lot.

The Broncos are reportedly among the teams most interested in RB Christian McCaffrey.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid will miss Oakland.

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn isn’t afraid to pound the ball.

After the draft, the Raiders want to get some contract talks going.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones thinks the division is better, but so is his team.

Giants LT Ereck Flowers keeps getting votes of confidence.

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie doesn’t think they have to worry about “Hard Knocks.”

Washington QB Kirk Cousins will have to adjust to a taller group of WRs.

Bears chairman George McCaskey wants to see “progress” from John Fox and Ryan Pace.

Lions season-ticket holders got a sneak peek at the new uniforms.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy thinks their offense is ready to reach another level.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said the Adrian Peterson decision boiled down to business.

Falcons CB Desmond Trufant will be held out of OTAs but should be ready for training camp.

The Panthers still expect OT Michael Oher to play this season.

Saints coach Sean Payton did his best to dismiss his meeting with Johnny Manziel as just a meeting.

The Buccaneers feel better about their chances in the division.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians thinks there’s one rookie QB capable of playing right away.

Rams coach Sean McVay is fitting in as an “L.A. guy.”

Of the 49ers and bro hugs, and their significance to Jed York and Kyle Shanahan.

The Seahawks are planning on Luke Joeckel being their LT.

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Tony Romo returns to golfing

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As the Cowboys play chess, checkers, and/or chicken with the Texans and/or the Broncos regarding Tony Romo, Romo is back to playing a different game.

Via Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Romo will compete in the Azalea Invitational, Thursday through Sunday at the Country Club of Charleston, South Carolina.

Romo ditched competitive golf in 2013, due in part to his back surgeries and other injuries. The fact that he’s playing again suggests that he feels pretty good about his overall health.

It also suggests he’s not sitting around fretting about his football future, which has yet to be resolved and apparently may not be until July. More on where that all stands in a separate post.

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Adrian Peterson working out with Jameis Winston, intriguing Bucs

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Adrian Peterson hasn’t found a team interested in signing him yet, but there may be another one with some degree of interest.

After a social media post appeared of the former Vikings running back working out with Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, Bucs coach Dirk Koeetter said he’s curious to hear a scouting report.

“I’ve seen Adrian Peterson many times playing and that guy is one of the best running backs to ever play,” Koetter said, via Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. “I’m anxious to talk to Jameis and ask him how his workouts went. That caught me off guard. I didn’t know that. I’ll be honest with you, first thing I thought when I saw that was Jamies is just an amazing guy. The guy is everywhere.”

Of course, the Bucs have at least a three-week opening for a starting running back next season, if not more.

Doug Martin will serve the first three games for a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs, but the Bucs may make a move to sign or draft another one before the season, and the team has been hesitant to fully endorse him.

That could leave the door open for Peterson, as other teams including the Giants have been more willing to do lately.

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Fans of indoor team vote “no” on Greg Hardy signing

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Indoor football fans in Utah, it seems, are just like the NFL.

They don’t want to bother with Greg Hardy either.

Via ESPN, the fans of the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles of the Indoor Football League voted against adding the former Panthers and Cowboys defensive end.

The team said it would sign Hardy provided fans approved in an online vote. And while the team app showed a fairly even split of fans, a trophy was put next to the no column, which should keep him out.

It’s a another speed bump for Hardy in his redemption tour, which has clumsily waded through the NFL, some MMA training and soon the Spring League in West Virginia. He keeps talking about being a changed man, while never quite owning some of his past mistakes including the domestic violence arrest in Charlotte which was settled out of court and eventually dismissed.

So while Hardy was ready to play for the team Friday night against the Colorado Crush, yet another group of people has decided they’re not all that interested in seeing him play.

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Texans feel good about J.J. Watt’s recovery from back surgery

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Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt had two back surgeries last year and played in just three games, but he should be good to go this year.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien said at the league meeting that Watt will arrive in good shape when the team opens offseason work in three weeks.

J.J. is doing great,” O’Brien said. “He’s really looking forward to being back in Houston [for the start of the offseason program]. He’s definitely on track to be ready to go. I don’t know how much he’ll do in OTAs and things like that, but he’s on track to be ready to play. And, knowing J.J. the way I do, I will tell you he cannot wait to be back out on the field.”

The Texans were a playoff team even without Watt. If they can get the best defensive player in the league back and healthy, they have to feel very good about their chances in 2017.

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Overtime rule tabled indefinitely

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Many of you (OK, several of you . . . OK, some of you . . . OK, one of you . . . OK, no one yet) have asked when the proposed reduction in overtime from 15 minutes to 10 minutes will be presented again to the league’s owners for a potential vote. Some in the media have suggested that it definitely will happen in May. A league source tells PFT that there’s currently no timetable for reintroducing it.

With nine teams opposed to the measure, the league needs only one to flip. As the source explained it, the measure will be back on the table in May if that happens before then.

If it doesn’t, the proposal will continue to reside on the back burner, with no vote taken because if that happens the “no” vote would prevail.

So how will a team end up changing its position? The most direct way would be to lobby the nine holdouts until one of them sees things differently. The more complicated way entails old-fashioned horse trading, with one or more of the teams that oppose the proposal being offered something else on a wink-nod basis.

Is that proper? It doesn’t matter. It’s how things happen in any organization that requires votes to be cast in order for things to get done.

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NFLPA keeps close tabs on Jaguars under Tom Coughlin

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From the moment the clocks in Jacksonville were set five minutes early, the NFL Players Association knew that the ticking had begun toward confrontations with new Jaguars executive V.P. of football operations Tom Coughlin.

Already, two have occurred. First came the mandate that players return in March for physicals, a requirement that has sparked an argument that the Jaguars have violated the terms of the labor deal. Per multiple sources, players actually did show up for the physicals — and those who came from out of town weren’t happy about it.

Next came the attempt to launch the offseason program earlier than allowed. The Jaguars claim that the hiring of a new coach (Doug Marrone) permits them to begin before April 17. The statement issued by the team reiterates this belief, glossing over the fact that (per a source with knowledge of the situation) the NFLPA filed on Monday a grievance challenging the proposed starting date and, by Tuesday night, the issue had been resolved with the Jaguars delaying the opening of the program until April 17, the earliest starting date for teams with returning coaches.

It’s not the first time the union has been keeping close tabs on Coughlin. When he became Giants coach in 2004, the late Gene Upshaw (who served for years as NFLPA executive director) put Coughlin “on notice” regarding the voluntary nature of the offseason program.

“We don’t care if they get a new coach,” Upshaw said in May 2004. “He has rules, we have rules. If he doesn’t want to live within our rules, we will get him.”

Current leadership of the NFLPA already has gotten him twice, and the offseason program hasn’t opened yet. If there’s any potential noncompliance by the Jaguars once players report for optional workouts on April 17, it’s safe to assume that there will be more grievances.

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CBS reportedly considering Tony Romo as “potential replacement” for Phil Simms

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When it comes to playing football, Tony Romo currently has limited options. When it comes to broadcasting football, Tony Romo has two. And one of them could make him a major network’s No. 1 analyst, potentially.

Via Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, CBS is eyeing Romo as a “potential replacement” for Phil Simms. It’s unclear whether this means Romo would supplant Simms right out of the gates, or whether Romo would start at a lower rung and work his way up.

An immediate installment as the No. 1 guy could be overwhelming for Romo, given that CBS has the Thursday night package for the first half of the season. In his first year of learning how to call games, he’d be calling two per week.

Landing at the top of the CBS football food chain also could make it harder for Romo to pull a Roger Clemens and return to the field during the season, if an opportunity to play half a season for a contender would emerge with the bursting of a tendon or the shredding of a ligament.

Then there’s the question of whether Simms would be demoted to the No. 2 team — or whether CBS would simply throw eem overboard.

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Saints re-sign veteran tight end Phillips

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Drew Brees has made a habit of throwing to his tight ends over the years.

On Wednesday, they Saints re-signed an exception.

John Phillips, a blocker first and a blocker second, returned to the club on a one-year deal. He initially joined the club in November, New Orleans claiming him after Denver placed him on waivers.

Last season, Phillips caught 10 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown between his time with the Broncos and Saints. He has 55 catches for 390 yards and five scores over a 111-game career.

That’s fine. Phillips, 29, is there to do the dirty work.

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