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Preseason Power Rankings No. 12: Chicago Bears

Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall AP

The 2013 Bears scored the second-most points in franchise history (445). Only the 1985 Bears tallied more in regular season play, putting up 456 in their bulldozing of all non-Dan Marino-led competition in a 15-1 season.

But for all of their skill on offense, the 2013 Bears were overmatched on defense, surrendering 478 points, 57 points more than any previous Chicago club had given up.

Long before the Packers’ Randall Cobb sprinted through the Chicago secondary en route to the division-clinching touchdown in the regular season finale, the Bears’ defense was broken. Chicago surrendered at least 28 points in half of its games, including 54 to Philadelphia, 45 to Washington, 42 to St. Louis and 40 to Detroit. No team allowed more yards per play than the Bears, and no team was worse against the run.

In the offseason, the Bears set out to bolster that “D,” signing two of the best available defensive ends (Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen) and drafting defensive players with four of their first five picks. On offense, the Bears tried to build continuity. They re-committed to quarterback Jay Cutler, signing him to a seven-year contract worth up to $126.7 million in January. In May, they signed wide receiver Brandon Marshall to a four-year deal worth as much as $40 million.

These were logical moves for Chicago. For once, it was the offense didn’t need much work. Now, the focus turns to whether the defense can provide more resistance in head coach Marc Trestman’s second season on the job.

Strengths.

The Bears’ 2014 offense could be one of the best the franchise has ever fielded. Marshall (100 catches, 1,295 yards, 12 TDs in 2013) and fellow starting wideout Alshon Jeffery (89-1,421-7) were Pro Bowlers a season ago, as were tailback Matt Forte (1,933 combined rushing-receiving yards) and right guard Kyle Long.

Cutler — now in sixth season in Chicago — appears to have taken well to Trestman’s scheme. The strong-armed Cutler connected on 63.1 percent of his throws a season ago, his best completion percentage in six years. He’s quite capable of being the first Bears quarterback to make a Pro Bowl since Jim McMahon 29 years ago.

If Cutler gets an all-star nod, he’ll be aided by strength of his pass catching corps. Marshall and Jeffery form an outstanding tandem. Forte is one of the game’s best receivers out of the backfield. Tight end Martellus Bennett is solid, too.

In Trestman’s inaugural campaign, the Bears’ passing attempts rose nearly 20 percent, but total sacks were down more than 30 percent. Moreover, the club’s completion percentage was up more than five percent. In short, the 2013 Bears threw it more and threw it better — and their quarterbacks hit the ground less. That’s testament to Trestman’s scheme, but it also reflects well on the offensive line, which the club overhauled last year, drafting Long and right tackle Jordan Mills and signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson.

The Bears can only hope their offseason D-line investment will pay similar dividends. And Allen, Houston and ex-Lions end Willie Young should strengthen a defense that got just 20 sacks from its front four a season ago.

Finally, in Robbie Gould, the Bears have one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers. He hit 26-of-29 field goals in 2013, including 9-of-11 from 40 yards and beyond.

Weaknesses.

Even with an upgraded defensive line, the Bears’ defense looms a major concern. The top player in the LB corps, Lance Briggs, will be 34 in November. Shea McClellin, the Bears’ 2012 first-round pick, could get reps at strong-side and middle linebacker in an attempt to jump-start his career. More is also needed from second-year pro Jon Bostic, whether at middle or outside linebacker.

The Bears’ secondary also looks shaky. Per Pro Football Focus grades, the club had two of the four worst starting safeties in 2013 (SS Major Wright, FS Chris Conte). Wright departed in free agency, and Conte comes off shoulder surgery. The Bears added four veterans and a draft pick at safety, which at least gives them some options as they try to craft a workable solution on the back end.

The Bears’ cornerback play should also be monitored. The club added some much-needed youth and depth in the draft, taking Kyle Fuller in Round One. Fuller, veterans Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman figure as the top three corners. If the 33-year-old Tillman stays healthy and returns to form, and if Fuller is a quick study, the Bears should be just fine at this key position. But if Tillman misses time, and if Fuller isn’t quite ready for prime time, the Bears could have a problem.

The worries don’t stop there. The Bears’ special teams are quite unsettled entering training camp. The club will have a new punter, holder, long-snapper, punt returner and kickoff returner. And backup quarterback could be a trouble spot after the departure of Josh McCown. Veterans Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer and sixth-round rookie David Fales will vie to back up Cutler. Clausen and Palmer have generally struggled against NFL competition, but Trestman is masterful with quarterbacks.

Changes.

The defensive depth chart got a makeover. The Bears released defensive end Julius Peppers and didn’t bring back defensive tackle Henry Melton, defensive end Corey Wootton or linebacker James Anderson. The Bears’ most expensive free agent signings — Houston and Allen — are defensive ends, a nod to the premium that ready-made pass rushers command. To bolster the defensive tackle depth, the Bears turned to the draft, selecting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third rounds, respectively.

The Bears took a value shopping approach at safety. Free agent additions Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Adrian Wilson are all slated to make less than $1 million in salary this season, per NFLPA records.

On offense, the changes were reserved to backup spots. McCown left to be the Buccaneers’ starter, while tailback Michael Bush and Earl Bennett were released. Rookie Ka’Deem Carey could help replace Bush, while former Washington wideout Josh Morgan was signed to bolster the WR depth.

The Bears underwent several major shakeups in the kicking game. Long-time star returner Devin Hester signed with Atlanta. Punter Adam Podlesh was released, and the club spent a draft pick on a potential replacement (Pat O’Donnell, Round Six). Then, late in the offseason, 16-year long-snapper Patrick Mannelly retired, adding another layer of uncertainty to the special teams.

Camp battles.

Here are the positions and players to watch:

— Safety: Ex-Giant Mundy might have the edge at strong safety, but Wilson is a wild card if he has something left after missing the 2013 season with an Achilles injury. Rookie Vereen is the biggest threat to the incumbent Conte at free safety.

— Cornerback: The progress of Fuller must be monitored. There are plenty of snaps to be had in this secondary if he’s up to it.

— Defensive tackle: Can Ferguson or Sutton push starters Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea? If not, can the rookies at least prove capable rotation players?

— Linebacker: Will Bostic, McClellin and second-year outside linebacker Khaseem Greene step up their play? The Bears didn’t draft a linebacker and added only veteran backup Jordan Senn in free agency.

— Wide receiver: Morgan and second-year pro Marquess Wilson appear the favorites to replace Bennett as the third receiver.

— Running back: Carey and second-year pro Michael Ford will compete for the little work that won’t go to Forte, a true three-down back.

— Quarterback: Palmer, Clausen and Fales will compete for no more than two reserve roles. The question is, which of this trio most quickly applies Trestman’s lessons?

— Returner: Eric Weems is the most experienced option in the competition to return kickoffs and punts.

— Punter: O’Donnell will try to hold off veteran Tress Way.

— Long-snapper: First-year pro Brandon Hartson and CFL veteran Chad Rempel will battle it out.

Prospects.

The Bears must hang tough early. Six of their first nine games are on the road, including trips to visit the 49ers (Week Two), Falcons (Week Six), Patriots (Week Eight) and Packers (Week 10).

If Chicago can get through that nine-pack in decent order, there’s a real chance to close with gusto. From November 16 through December 21, the Bears play five home games and take just one road trip — Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. The Bears end their season at Minnesota — no picnic, yes, but not the worst draw ever.

It all looks fairly cut-and-dried with the Bears. If their defense is better, and if their offense hums along, they are serious contenders for a playoff spot. But if the defense remains a sieve, and if the offense regresses, they are vulnerable.

The Bears aren’t the youngest of teams. Tillman and Briggs don’t have many NFL years left. Cutler and Marshall aren’t kids, either, and Forte is approaching 2,000 career touches. There ought to be a real sense of urgency to get into the playoffs with an offense this talented. As Bears observers with any sense of history would tell you, scoring points traditionally hasn’t been a Chicago strength.

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Bills’ Eric Wood blames ESPN for lack of interest in Michael Sam

michaelsam AP

Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL, was cut by the Rams on Saturday and passed over by all 31 other teams on waivers on Sunday, and so far he hasn’t even been able to land a spot on a practice squad. So are NFL teams avoiding Sam because he’s gay?

According to one NFL player, the answer to that question is yes — but not because teams are homophobic. Bills center Eric Wood says teams are avoiding Sam because they don’t want the ESPN hype that would come with having Sam, the only openly gay player in football, on the team. In response to a question from Ross Tucker about Sam’s lack of practice squad offers, Wood said ESPN is to blame.

Last week ESPN apologized for a report that quoted an unnamed Rams player as saying that Sam hadn’t showered with teammates in training camp. But even aside from that report, Wood’s view is the most sensible explanation for why Sam remains out of work: NFL teams just don’t like seeing one player singled out for any reason other than his play on the field.

Although there were some questions before this year’s draft about whether Sam would be a good fit in any NFL defense, Sam played well enough in the Rams’ scheme during his four preseason games that it’s surprising the Rams haven’t added him to their practice squad. It’s even more surprising that no other team has picked Sam up. It would be nice if some team had the guts to give Sam the chance he deserves, but Wood may be right that Sam is paying the price for teams being scared of distractions.

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Sixth-round pick Matt Hazel among 10 additions to Miami’s practice squad

Matt Hazel AP

The Dolphins’ initial practice squad includes one of their draft picks.

Sixth-round pick Matt Hazel, a wide receiver from Coastal Carolina, was among the 10 signees to the practice squad announced by Miami on Sunday.

The 22-year-old Hazel caught six passes for 87 yards and a touchdown in preseason play for Miami.

The Dolphins’ other practice squad additions are center Sam Brenner, offensive tackle Tony Hills, linebacker David Hinds, quarterback Seth Lobato, tight end Jacob Maxwell, defensive end D’Aundre Reed, cornerback Lowell Rose, defensive tackle Garrison Smith and wide receiver Tommy Streeter. Brenner, Lobato, Reed and Smith were waived by Miami on Saturday, then re-signed to the practice squad after clearing waivers.

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Robert Griffin III gets a statue at his alma mater

rg3statue AP

Robert Griffin III traveled from Washington to Waco this weekend to see himself immortalized at the age of 24.

Griffin was back at the campus of Baylor, the school where he won the Heisman Trophy and where a new football stadium has opened that features a bronze statue of Griffin outside.

“It’s amazing. You don’t dream about that kind of stuff,” Griffin told the Waco Tribune. “There’s a Statue of Liberty and all those other statues, but you don’t ever dream of having a statue honored in your name. That’s a blessing. It comes from God, and I don’t look at it as anyone putting me on a pedestal. I look at it as I know where my blessings come from, and they’re using me in a way to help other people. Not just to say, ‘he’s a great football player.’ I hope they say, ‘he’s a great man’ as well.”

Baylor President Ken Starr talked about Griffin in glowing terms, saying he hopes people will visit Waco to see Griffin’s statue just as they visit Washington to see the Lincoln Memorial and visit New York City to see the Statue of Liberty.

Griffin’s disappointing second season in the NFL has led to many questions about whether he can ever live up to the promise he showed as a rookie. But at Baylor, he’s still an idol.

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Jets add Matt Simms, six others to practice squad

New York Jets v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

The Jets have re-signed one of the quarterbacks they waived Saturday to their practice squad.

Matt Simms, who was among the club’s final cuts, is among the first seven players added to the Jets’ practice roster, the team said Sunday.

Another practice squad addition was ex-Rams tailback Daryl Richardson, whom the Jets also waived Saturday.

The Jets’ other practice squad signees were defensive tackle Tevita Finau, defensive lineman Kerry Hyder, safety Rontez Miles, tight end Chris Pantale and offensive tackle Brett Qvale.

The Jets have three more practice squad spots to be filled.

Among the Jets’ cuts who have yet to be added to a practice squad is rookie quarterback Tajh Boyd, who cleared waivers Sunday.

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Chiefs extend Alex Smith

Smith AP

Alex Smith was prepared to pull the plug on contract talks if they ever became a distraction.  It never got to that point.

After an intense and largely secretive day of negotiations, the Chiefs and Smith have worked out a four-year, $68 million extension.

Per a league source, Smith gets $30 million guaranteed at signing.  Another $15 million in injury-only guarantee vests in March 2015.

Smith, who is still only 30 years old, was traded to the Chiefs last year for what ultimately became two second-round picks.  He performed very well in his first season with Kansas City, leading the team to the playoffs and having one of the best days of his career, which has become overlooked via the second-half defensive collapse that blew a 38-10 lead in Indianapolis.

Coupled with his 2014 base salary of $7.5 million, Smith gets $75.5 million over five years, an average of $15.1 million.

The first overall pick in the 2005 draft, Smith was regarded as a borderline bust until Jim Harbaugh arrived as head coach.  A very strong 2011 led to an equally impressive 2012.  But a concussion gave Colin Kaepernick a chance to play, and he played well enough to send Smith to the bench — and ultimately out the door.

Now, Smith has a contract that is much, much (did I say much?) better than the team-friendly deal that Kaepernick signed earlier this year.

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Cowboys bring running back Ryan Williams back to practice squad

Dallas Cowboys v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

As it turns out, Devon Still isn’t the only former second-rounder to make a practice squad this weekend, but at least he’s on the team that drafted him.

Among the seven practice-squaders signed by the Cowboys Sunday was running back Ryan Williams.

Williams was taken by the Cardinals in the second round of the 2011 Draft, 38th overall. He had a solid preseason for the Cowboys, but was released yesterday, as the Cowboys kept just Lance Dunbar and Joseph Randle behind starter DeMarco Murray.

The Cowboys also signed wide receiver Tim Benford, defensive end Kenneth Boatright, center Ronald Patrick, safety Micah Pellerin and linebackers Keith Smith and Will Smith.

They also released tackle John Wetzel from the active roster to make room for guard Donald Hawkins, after claiming him off waivers from the Browns.

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Mike Pettine hints Rex Grossman might be back soon

Rex Grossman, Cornelius Washington AP

We should have seen this coming. The NFL simply could not be without Rex Grossman for too long.

The Browns cut Grossman earlier today during a spate of roster moves, but Browns coach Mike Pettine said that might be temporary.

I wouldn’t read too much into it right now,” Pettine said, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Some guys could come back. It’s fluid.”

The Browns also waived wide receiver Charles Johnson and offensive linemen Karim Barton and Martin Wallace, after claiming four players off waivers.

But Grossman has a link none of those players have, an all-but-the-tattoo relationship with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan which has kept him employed for several years.

Whether the Browns bring him back this week, or in Week Two when his salary wouldn’t be guaranteed for the year, it appears obvious he’ll be back.

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Cardinals claim outside linebacker Thomas Keiser off waivers

Thomas Keiser AP

The Cardinals and Chargers will play twice in 11 days, since the rematch of the preseason finale will be played next Monday night.

Thomas Keiser will have the rare ability to play for both teams.

The Cardinals claimed the outside linebacker, who was waived by the Chargers yesterday, according to the league’s transaction notice. They waived wide receiver Walter Powell to make room on the roster.

Keiser’s a reasonably talented pass-rusher, who had 4.5 sacks last year, but the Chargers used a second-round pick on Jeremiah Attaochu and brought in CFL pass-rusher Cordarro Law.

Keiser also had an arrest for misdemeanor battery from a fight outside a San Diego bar last year. He pleaded guilty, and has to attend anger management classes.

But he’s also a competent pass-rusher, and the Cardinals are looking for all the help they can get after losing piece after piece this offseason.

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Report: Packers work out three quarterbacks Sunday

Miami Dolphins OTA Getty Images

The Packers, who kept two backup quarterbacks on their 53-player roster, reportedly took a look at three other quarterbacks on Sunday.

According to Field Yates of ESPN, the Packers put Pat Devlin, Jeff Mathews and Jon Jennings through workouts on Sunday.

The 26-year-old Devlin has the most NFL experience of the trio. He spent the previous three seasons with the Dolphins. Miami released Devlin (6-3, 220) with an injury settlement on August 19. Devlin played collegiately at Delaware.

A Cornell product, Mathews spent time with the Falcons this summer before being waived August 24. He signed as undrafted free agent with Atlanta in May. Mathews (6-4, 229) agreed to join the Colts’ practice squad on Sunday.

Jennings (6-2, 205) is a rookie from Saginaw Valley State. He was collegiate teammates with Packers wide receiver Jeff Janis.

It’s possible the Packers were working out the three quarterbacks with an eye on being prepared in case a passer needed to be added at a moment’s notice. Such workouts are not uncommon.

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Irsay’s plea deal puts him in line for suspension

Jim Irsay AP

After Colts owner Jim Irsay was arrested for driving while impaired, some thought the NFL would hold him to a higher standard by suspending him before his case was finalized.  Irsay’s plea deal, which apparently will be finalized on Tuesday, means that any discipline will be imposed after the case has ended.

The question now becomes whether the NFL will hold Irsay to a higher standard by suspending him for a first-offense DUI.  Players typically are fined two game checks for a first offense, absent serious injury or other discipline under the substance-abuse policy.

Adam Schefter of ESPN previously has reported that league insiders expect a six-to-eight game suspension for Irsay.  Don’t be surprised if the suspension comes this week, before the Colts travel to Denver for the first Sunday night of the season.

The financial component of the penalty remains unknown.  In Irsay’s case, he could be fined an amount that raises eyebrows, in isolation.  But he likely won’t face an apples-to-apples penalty, with 1/17th of his total income taken away for each week of the suspension.  That’s what happens when a player is suspended.  To simulate the penalty, the league would have to take a drastic step, such as blocking the Colts’ share of league revenue for each week of the suspension.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether Irsay will be subjected to the same frequency and type of drug testing routinely imposed on a player in the program — and whether Irsay would ever face the ultimate consequence of a one-year banishment.

This much is clear and undeniable.  Irsay’s alleged operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of prescription medication posed a much greater threat than Josh Gordon smoking marijuana ever did.  Whatever the penalty imposed on Irsay, it’ll be difficult if not impossible to reconcile the punishment meted out to player and to owner.

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Pats get only a conditional 2016 seventh-round pick for Mallett

Ryan Mallett AP

There apparently wasn’t much of a trade market for quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Despite talk that the Patriots might get a mid-round draft pick in trading Mallett, they gave him up today for only a conditional 2016 seventh-round pick. That’s what the Texans gave up to acquire Mallett, according to ESPN.

It’s unknown what the conditions are, but the deal likely includes provisions based on Mallett’s playing time or how long he remains on the Texans’ roster, so that the Texans could end up sending New England a sixth-round pick if Mallett becomes Houston’s starter.

Bottom line, teams just weren’t interested in giving up anything of real value to acquire Mallett, whom the Patriots drafted in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft. A late pick a year and a half from now isn’t nothing, but it’s next to nothing. And that’s what the Patriots settled for.

In Houston, Mallett will be reunited with head coach Bill O’Brien, who coached Mallett as an assistant in New England. O’Brien may see something in Mallett, but Bill Belichick didn’t see enough in Mallett to make him worth keeping, as long as the Patriots could get anything of even moderate value in return.

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Chris Clemons out, Danieal Manning expected back in at safety for Texans

Kellen Davis, Danieal Manning AP

The Texans cut safety Danieal Manning early in the offseason, but there appears to be a reunion in the works.

Brian Smith of the Houston Chronicle reports that the team is expected to sign Manning, who was cut by the Bengals, to their 53-man roster if he passes his physical. Manning spent the last three years in Houston, starting all 35 games he played for the team before a broken leg brought an early end to his 2013 season. Manning had four interceptions and two sacks during his time in Houston.

Manning’s return will coincide with the end of Chris Clemons’s short tenure with the team. Smith reports Clemons will be cut as the team shapes their roster before the first game of the regular season. Clemons was a member of the Dolphins before heading to Houston and his old team might have some interest in a return with Reshad Jones suspended for the first four games of the year.

Smith reports that wide receiver Mike Thomas is also out. The addition of Damaris Johnson via waivers likely eliminated the need for Thomas on the Houston roster.

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Titans add Kris Durham, Brandon Harris and six practice squadders

Kris Durham AP

The Titans claimed wide receiver T.J. Graham off waivers on Sunday, but he won’t be the only wideout trying to pick up Tennessee’s offense on the fly.

The team announced that they have claimed Kris Durham in addition to Graham. The former Lion had 38 catches for 645 and three touchdowns while playing with college buddy Matthew Stafford and brings a big frame with him to Tennessee.

Wide receiver Michael Preston, who has a big frame of his own, was waived with the two new receivers coming on board. The Titans also waived offensive lineman Steve Vallos and defensive back Khalid Wooten.

Wooten was deemed expendable because the Titans claimed cornerback Brandon Harris off waivers from Houston. Harris, a 2011 second-round pick, will join a thin cornerback corps in Tennessee.

The Titans also added six players to their practice squad. Offensive lineman Justin McCray, tackle Will Poehls, defensive lineman Chigbo Anunoby, linebacker Brandon Copeland, running back Antonio Andrews and wide receiver Rico Richardson were all with the team this summer.

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Patriots claim two rookie defensive linemen

Arizona Cardinals v San Diego Chargers Getty Images

The Patriots moved on from defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Tommy Kelly while making their way down to 53 players and they continued to show a taste for younger options up front on Sunday.

The team announced that they have claimed a pair of rookie defensive linemen off of waivers. Bruce Gaston was waived by the Cardinals after signing with them as an undrafted free agent out of Purdue, where he started 44 games and recorded seven sacks. Interestingly, Gaston was dropped by the Cardinals shortly after they signed Kelly to bolster their defensive line.

The Patriots also added Kelcy Quarles, who had 13 sacks in 35 games at South Carolina and was dropped by the Giants on their way to 53 players.

One of the roster spots needed for the new players was cleared when the Pats traded quarterback Ryan Mallett to the Texans, a move that the team officially confirmed on Sunday afternoon. They cleared the other one by releasing linebacker Chris White, who played all 16 regular season games for the Patriots as a special teamer last season.

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Ravens sign three recent draft picks to practice squad

Khiry Robinson, John Simon AP

The Ravens have signed three of their former draft picks to the practice squad.

The club announced Sunday it had re-signed outside linebacker John Simon (2013 fourth-round selection), offensive lineman Ryan Jensen (2013 sixth-round selection) and quarterback Keith Wenning (2014 sixth-round selection).

Simon, Jensen and Wenning are three of the Ravens’ nine initial signees to the practice squad. The others are rookie cornerback Tramain Jacobs, rookie defensive tackle Jamie Meder, rookie cornerback Deji Olatoye, rookie defensive tackle A.J. Pataiali’i, first-year tight end Phillip Supernaw and rookie tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint.

This leaves the Ravens with one open slot on their practice squad, which has been expanded to 10 players this season.

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