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Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: New Orleans Saints

drew-brees-sean-payton-saints-7b0eb0f96d81cbae_large Getty Images

The Saints are in an interesting position.

There might not be a team in the NFL as good as the thing they do than the Saints are at throwing the football.

The combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees continue to be one of the best coach-quarterback pairings, and now that the contract unpleasantness with tight end* Jimmy Graham is over, their offensive weapons are in place, mostly intact from last year.

But where does that get them?

When the top teams in the NFC are playing power football, can the Saints push beyond big fantasy stats with finesse?

They benefit by being different from the teams that topped the conference last year (the Panthers likewise want to play physically), but this year will be a test to see if that difference is meaningful.

Brees is still at the top of his game, but that might not be enough any more.

Strengths.

Did we mention Drew Brees was good at throwing the ball?

He threw for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions last year.

And with Graham paid, they still have an impressive array of targets.

Marques Colston is still producing at a high level, and even with a change in the backfield (more on that in a moment), they’re going to be able to move the ball.

Payton is tremendous at the chess match of offense, and incorporating some new guys into the scheme will allow them to develop that capability.

Adding first-round speedster Brandin Cooks should more than make up for the departure of Lance Moore, especially with Kenny Stills developing into a more dependable target.

Weaknesses.

Last year, the Saints’ defense might have been better than their offense, or perhaps it was just by contrast to the year before.

Rob Ryan transformed a group that set a league record for yards allowed in 2012, and it’s not as if they had a gigantic personnel upgrade.

Ryan was patching together parts, and injuries didn’t help.

But Junior Galette emerged as a legitimate outside linebacker option, and defensive end Cameron Jordan had a breakout year with 12.5 sacks.

The offseason’s big acquisition, safety Jairus Byrd, ought to be able to make a big impact, paired alongside Kenny Vaccaro. That enthusiasm was dampened a bit when Byrd needed back surgery, knocking him out of most of the offseason work.

The only problem is, the Saints still might not have sufficient personnel on that side of the ball, so regression is a real possibility.

They finally pared away some of the old parts on defense (cutting Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer), which might have been necessary.

But other than bringing in last-legs cornerback Champ Bailey, there wasn’t the kind of influx of talent they might have needed.

They improved last year based largely on energy and emotion, and we’ll see how long that lasts in the face of a talent discrepancy.

Changes.

The Saints traded a complementary running back, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a headline move.

But that back was Darren Sproles, who was such an integral part of their offense, catching 71 passes last year.

Replacing him will be a huge challenge, and they’re going to be relying on a deep group of backs.

Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram will likely get most of the carries, but Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet will need to make a big step to pick up the slack from Sproles’ departure.

Cooks might be the biggest beneficiary of the change, as they want to take advantage of his 4.3 speed. While it’s not a like-for-like replacement, he does have the same kind of game-changing ability as Sproles.

Camp Battles.

The Saints offensive line was a work in progress last year, but rookie Terron Armstead settled into a spot where they’re comfortable with him at left tackle. They were also able to hang onto right tackle Zach Strief and guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans return.

That leaves a hole in the middle, after Brian de la Puente left in free agency for Chicago.

Tim Lelito will get the first crack, but they brought veteran Jonathan Goodwin back for cover, giving them a reasonable competition.

It would also help if a young cornerback would step up opposite Keenan Lewis. They brought in Bailey, but all parties are probably best served if he’s able to limit his snaps a bit. Second-rounder Stanley Jean-Baptiste gives them some new size at the position, which will enable them to match up better with the big wideouts in their division.

Prospects.

They’re going to be pretty good.

If the defense continues at last year’s pace, they can be very good.

But the Saints have problems local and national.

They play in perhaps the league’s deepest division, with the Falcons healthy and re-tooled and the Buccaneers on the upswing with Lovie Smith along with the defensively stout Panthers.

Then comes the matter of whether they can stand toe-to-toe with the Seahawks and 49ers to make a push for another title.

That makes the regular season of extreme importance. They’re a different team in their own building, so getting home field advantage might mean more to them than any team in the NFC.

If they can get it, the Saints could easily be a Super Bowl team.

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Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams may get cut

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 24:  Kyle Williams #95 of the Buffalo Bills sacks quarterback Michael Vick #1 of the New York Jets in the third quarter at Ford Field on November 24, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. Buffalo defeated New York 38-3.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) Getty Images

Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams made his fifth Pro Bowl this year, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be back in Buffalo for the season ahead.

Williams has an $8.3 million cap hit in 2017, and Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News describes Williams as very vulnerable to getting cut.

It’s also possible that the soon-to-be 34-year-old Williams will decide to walk away: He said after Week 17 that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep playing, especially if the Bills decide to blow up the roster and rebuild.

Last year Williams agreed to take a pay cut to stay in Buffalo. If he’d agree to do that again, the Bills would presumably like to keep him. But it might be time, after 11 seasons, for the two sides to part ways.

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Trailblazing quarterback Bernie Custis dies at 88

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Decades before the NFL embraced African-American quarterbacks, Bernie Custis became the first in pro football in 1951 as the starter for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. On Thursday, Custis died at the age of 88.

“Trailblazers are rightly remembered for being the first,” CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said, via the Associated Press. “Bernie Custis, the first black professional quarterback in the modern era starting with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1951, should be revered as well for being one of our best. A world-class athlete, he excelled both as a quarterback and a running back. A tremendous leader, he was a successful coach who had a positive impact on countless young lives. A true gentleman, he brought honor to our game and our league, and provided us with a role model to emulate.”

The Browns made Custis the sixth overall pick of the 1951 draft. But Cleveland wanted to make him a safety, and Custis wanted to play quarterback. So he went to Canada.

Custis, who played college football at Syracuse and roomed with Al Davis, became a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

After his playing career ended, Custis spent 31 years in coaching at various levels.

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Earl Mitchell signs with 49ers

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

The 49ers have signed defensive tackle Earl Mitchell to a four-year deal, NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported.

Per the report, Mitchell will sign a contract worth $16 million over the four years and will get $5.5 million in 2017.

Mitchell was released last week by the Dolphins, who cut him instead of paying him $4 million next season. He had taken visits with the Falcons, Broncos, Seahawks and 49ers before deciding to sign with the 49ers.

Mitchell, 29, spent the last three seasons with the Dolphins. He played in nine games and started five last season. Mitchell has 5.5 career sacks and two fumble recoveries.

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Will the Steelers use the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell?

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 30:  Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates his touchdown during the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Heinz Field on November 30, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) Getty Images

Although the question of whether the Vikings cut running back Adrian Peterson won’t affect the amount of the franchise tag applicable to Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, there’s another development that will: Not using the franchise tag at all.

The Steelers could opt to use the transition tag instead of the franchise tag on Bell. The transition tag would give the Steelers a right to match any offer sheet that Bell signs elsewhere; the franchise tag would provide a right to match and two first-round picks as compensation if he leaves (breaking: no one will be giving up two first-round picks for Bell).

If no one is willing to give Bell the kind of contract he wants even without losing draft picks, he’d be eligible to stay in Pittsburgh on a one-year deal that equates to, per a league source, 5.892 percent of the 2017 salary cap. That’s considerably less than the 7.257-percent rate that applies under the franchise tag for running backs.

Based on a $165 million salary cap, those percentages equate to a franchise tender of $11.97 million and a transition tender of $9.72 million. For the Steelers, the question becomes whether it’s worth the extra $2.25 million to prevent another team from trying to pilfer Bell.

If the Steelers believe that no other team would break the bank for a guy who a significant injury history, a groin injury that was bad enough to at least make surgery an option, and a pair of substance-abuse policy violations, it makes plenty of sense to save the money and retain the rights to a running back who has been great when healthy and available, but who isn’t healthy and available often enough (he has missed 20 total games in four seasons) to justify that kind of investment.

In an era when the transition tag isn’t used on a regular basis, the Steelers have applied it twice in the last decade. In 2014, linebacker Jason Worilds received the transition tag. Ditto for tackle Max Starks six years earlier.

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Tom Coughlin tiptoes around commitment to Blake Bortles

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 12:  Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars calls a play during the first quarter of a game against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on October 12, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) Getty Images

For the most part, the Friday Tom Coughlin process was quintessential Tom Coughlin. Direct. Candid but guarded, and candid about being guarded. On one of the first questions, however, Coughlin was asked a direct question and evaded it.

Asked whether he is committed to Blake Bortles as the team’s starting quarterback, Coughlin opted not to say “yes” or “no.” The end result was a convoluted way of saying, “Maybe.”

“There’s plenty of work for everybody to do, Blake included,” Coughlin told reporters. “To raise the game to a higher level, it takes all components as well. That’s why I mentioned the protection first of all. Being at the right place at the right time, the timing, taking care of the football, which is paramount to that position. There can be no way the ball is turned over to that extent. I think he’d be the first one to say that he has a lot of work to do, but we all have a lot of work to do; I’m going to put it that way.”

That’s a way of saying that if Bortles doesn’t do the work, Coughlin and company will find someone who will. Long before the Jaguars know whether Bortles can do the work, they’ll have to decide whether to exercise the option for the fifth year of his rookie deal, which will equate to the transition tag for quarterbacks in 2017 (i.e., 11.409 percent of the 2017 salary cap).

At a 2017 cap of $165 million, that’s $18.82 million guaranteed for injury for a fifth season with Bortles. Based on Coughlin’s convoluted answer to a straightforward question, it’s hardly a slam dunk that they’ll pick up the option on or before May 3.

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Browns have 11 picks, will be busy again in April

Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson, right, laughs as he answers questions during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in Berea, Ohio. Jackson has experience as a head coach, knows the AFC North and has fixed quarterbacks. Jackson, who waited four years for his second crack at leading an NFL team, has been hired as Cleveland's next coach, the struggling franchise's eighth since 1999 and sixth since 2008. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is on the left. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) AP

Friday’s official announcement of compensatory picks for the 2017 NFL Draft allowed the Browns and other teams around the league to close the books on some previous business, specifically in finalizing trades and in knowing the exact spot in the order of certain picks they hold in this year’s draft.

As previously outlined, the Browns had agreed to send a third-round compensatory pick to the Patriots, if they got one, before last year’s trade deadline to acquire linebacker Jamie Collins. They did receive a compensatory third-round pick, No. 103 overall, so that goes to the Patriots.

The Browns also got a pair of fourth-round picks and one fifth-round compensatory pick. One of those fourth-round picks, No. 139 overall, will go to the Eagles as part of last year’s pre-draft trade that allowed the Eagles to move up and select Carson Wentz.

So, the Browns currently hold 11 picks in this year’s draft, including Nos. 1 and 12 in the first round and five of the first 65 picks. They tied a record by drafting 14 players last season.

This is the third consecutive year and fourth time since 2012 that the Browns have held 10 or more picks, and it goes without saying that the franchise is a bit overdue in using those picks to spark a turnaround.

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Compensatory picks are a reward for smart teams

CANTON, OH - AUGUST 3: Baltimore Ravens General Manager/Executive Vice President and Hall of Fame tight end, Ozzie Newsome (L), presents former offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden of the Baltimore Ravens with his Hall of Fame bust during the NFL Class of 2013 Enshrinement Ceremony at Fawcett Stadium on Aug. 3, 2013 in Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) Getty Images

When the NFL implemented compensatory draft picks in 1994, the idea was that the extra picks would lend a hand to the teams that got out-spent in free agency, which was then new in the league: Compensatory picks go to teams that lose more in free agency than they gain, and so the picks were envisioned as a safeguard against the rich raiding the rosters of the poor.

It hasn’t worked out that way, however. In a league with revenue sharing and a salary cap, there’s not much of a distinction between the rich and the poor.

Instead, compensatory picks have turned out to reward smart teams. The teams that have been wise about not over-spending in free agency and keeping themselves in good salary cap shape are the ones that keep getting lots of compensatory picks, while the teams that overspend in free agency are the ones that don’t receive compensatory picks.

As a result, the consistently good teams tend to be the teams that consistently get a lot of compensatory picks. And the teams that consistently try to spend themselves out of last place are the ones that don’t get a lot of compensatory picks.

The list of teams that have received the most compensatory picks since 1994 is pretty similar to the list of the best teams in football since 1994: The Ravens have received the most compensatory picks, and they’ve won two Super Bowls. The Packers have received the second-most, and they’ve also won two Super Bowls. The Patriots are fourth, and they’ve won five Super Bowls. The 10 teams that have had the most compensatory picks have won most of the Super Bowls since 1994, with a total of 14 titles for those 10 teams.

At the other end of the spectrum, the teams that don’t receive a lot of compensatory picks tend to be bad teams: There are 14 teams that have received fewer than 20 compensatory picks since the system started in 1994, and those 14 teams have won a combined two Super Bowls.

Compensatory picks help teams stock their roster with low-cost depth, which is helpful, but the real reason teams with a lot of compensatory picks do well is that teams with a lot of compensatory picks are good at managing their salary caps. A system that was supposed to reward the poor at the expense of the rich has actually rewarded the smart at the expense of the dumb.

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49ers sign wide receiver DeAndre Carter

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 18: DeAndre Carter #13 of the New England Patriots makes the catch as Taveze Calhoun #33 of the Chicago Bears defends in the second half of a preseason game at Gillette Stadium on August 18, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The 49ers have signed wide receiver DeAndre Carter to a two-year contract.

Carter broke into the league with the Ravens following the 2015 draft. He has bounced around since then, spending time on the practice squad with the Raiders and Patriots. He went to camp with the Patriots last year before being waived in September.

The 49ers are expected to remake their receiving corps under new head coach Kyle Shanahan, so Carter will go to camp with a chance to earn a roster spot.

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Placement of chip in football poses another challenge

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23:  Detail of NFL footballs during the NFL game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks at the University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals and Seahawks tied 6-6.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

As Mike Pereira explains it, putting a chip in the football won’t help with rulings that depend on determining when a player’s knee hits the ground. There’s another issue with embracing ball-chip technology.

A source with extensive knowledge of the efforts to develop improved football technologies tells PFT that the question of where to place the chip also has vexed those trying to come up with a way to determine digitally the question of whether the ball crosses a boundary or breaks a plane.

“If we are counting on the chip to provide exact ball placement at the time the runner is ruled down that placement will oftentimes be inaccurate depending on how the ball is being carried,” the source explained. “Assume the chip is in the left tip of the ball and the runner has that end tucked in his elbow. When he’s ruled down it’s the opposite end that accurately places the ball.”

It’s a great point, and it means that, as a practical matter, a football would need to have sufficient chips to create a digital map of its location in relation to yard markers, sidelines, goal lines, etc.

Which means that it would make a lot more sense to suspend efforts to digitize the football and instead put cameras in as many places as possible to give a full and complete universe of angles and looks to ensure that officials will be able to quickly and efficiently determine whether the ruling on the field was right or wrong.

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Giants go from No. 130 to No. 140 in draft due to walkie-talkie penalty

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 18:  head coach Ben McAdoo of the New York Giantslooks on against the Detroit Lions during their game at MetLife Stadium on December 18, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) Getty Images

The NFL’s announcement of compensatory picks on Friday included handing the Browns with the 139th overall pick and the Rams with the 141st overall pick, but No. 140 was not included in the additional picks distributed around the league.

That pick near the end of the fourth round belongs to the Giants, who wound up in that spot as a result of league discipline.

After the Giants were found to be using walkie-talkies on the sideline in violation of league rules during a game last December, the league ruled that the Giants would see their fourth-round pick drop down the draft order. The team will also pay a $150,000 fine while head coach Ben McAdoo, who used the device when his regular connection to quarterback Eli Manning went out, will pay a $50,000 fine.

The Giants did not receive any compensatory picks in this year’s draft after going on a defensive free agent buying spree last offseason that got them back to the postseason for the first time in five years.

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Past trades net Patriots, Titans third-round compensatory picks

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 10: Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens is tackled by outside linebacker Jamie Collins #51 of the Cleveland Browns in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 10, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

When the Browns and Patriots agreed on a trade sending linebacker Jamie Collins from New England to Cleveland, the pick going back to the Patriots was unknown.

If the Browns got a third-round compensatory pick, they would convey it to the Patriots. The Browns found out that they did get a compensatory pick on Friday, so the 103rd overall pick will be in play for Bill Belichick to use in April. The Patriots now have two third-round picks and two fifth-round picks to go with selections in the first, second, fourth (they acquired one in a trade during last year’s draft to offset the one stripped by the NFL in Deflategate) and seventh rounds.

This is the first year that teams have been allowed to deal compensatory picks in trades and the Patriots weren’t the only ones adding a third-round selection to their collection. The Titans will pick at No. 100 with the Rams sending their compensatory pick to Nashville in last year’s trade for the first overall pick.

The Browns were rewarded with four compensatory picks, but they will only have two come the draft. They also agreed to send a fourth-round compensatory pick to the Eagles as part of Philly’s deal for the No. 2 overall pick last year. They received two of them and it is believed the higher of the picks — No. 139 overall — will go to the Eagles.

Cleveland also received a compensatory selection in the fifth round to go with the nine other picks under their control.

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Eleven teams get compensatory third-round picks

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 12: Olivier Vernon #54 of the New York Giants of the New York Giants during warm ups before an NFL preseason game against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium on August 12, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) Getty Images

Half the teams in the league ended up with extra draft picks Friday, with 11 teams getting an extra third-rounder.

The league announced compensatory choices, which are awarded to teams for net free agent losses the year before.

The highest pick, the 97th overall, went to the Dolphins, who were picked over last March, with defensive end Olivier Vernon and Lamar Miller among their losses.

The Panthers, who pulled the franchise tag from cornerback Josh Norman and watched him go to Washington, were given the 98th pick. The Ravens (annually among the league leaders in comp picks) were 99th, followed by the Rams. The Broncos, Seahawks, Browns, Chiefs, Steelers, Seahawks again and the Jets also added third-round comp picks.

The Bengals, Browns, Broncos, and Chiefs each got four extra picks.

A total of 32 choices were handed out, with 16 teams receiving at least one. Unlike previous years, comp picks can be traded this year, which should spice up the second and third days of the draft. Here’s a look at the picks awarded:

3-97, Miami

3-98, Carolina

3-99, Baltimore

3-100, Los Angeles Rams

3-101, Denver

3-102, Seattle

3-103, Cleveland

3-104, Kansas City

3-105, Pittsburgh

3-106, Seattle

3-107, New York Jets

4-138, Cincinnati

4-139, Cleveland

4-141, Los Angeles Rams

4-142, Cleveland

4-143, San Francisco

4-144, Indianapolis

5-178, Cincinnati

5-179, Denver

5-180, Miami

5-181, Arizona

5-182, Kansas City

5-183, Cleveland

5-184, Green Bay

5-185, New England

5-186, Miami

6-218, Kansas City

6-219, Cincinnati

6-220, Kansas City

7-253, Cincinnati

7-254, Denver

7-255, Denver

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Adrian Peterson is perplexed that people doubt him

Adrian Peterson AP

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson knows a lot of people doubt he can ever return to his past greatness, but he doesn’t understand why.

Peterson told Josina Anderson of ESPN he’s perplexed by that talk. Peterson notes that he has previously recovered from a serious knee injury to have an MVP season, and he notes that in 2015 he led the league with 1,485 rushing yards. He sees no reason he can’t come back again and have another big year in 2017.

What Peterson may not want to admit, however, is what athletes often can’t admit to themselves: He’s getting old. Yes, he led the league in rushing in 2015, but even that year he was beginning to slow down toward the end of the season: Over the last eight games of 2015, counting the playoffs, Peterson averaged just 3.67 yards per carry. And at the start of 2016, before he suffered the torn meniscus that would allow him to play in just one more game all year, he was even worse: Peterson totaled 31 carries for 50 yards before suffering that meniscus tear in Week Two.

And the reality is, while Peterson still led the league in rushing at age 30 in 2015, for an NFL running back the difference between 30 and 32 is huge. There have been 25 running backs in NFL history who gained at least 1,000 yards at age 30. Only two of them, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith, also gained at least 1,000 yards at age 32. And neither Payton nor Smith suffered a serious knee injury at age 31, as Peterson did.

So while Peterson may have no doubt that he can return to form, it’s easy to understand why others doubt him. Every athlete gets old eventually, and for Peterson, that time has come.

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Mike Pettine Sr. passes away

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 11: A Cleveland Browns helmet rests on the field prior to the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 11, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Browns 29-10. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) Getty Images

Mike Pettine Sr., a legendary high school football coach in Pennsylvania and father of former Browns head coach Mike Pettine Jr., passed away on Friday.

Per the Bucks County Times, Pettine Sr. was at his winter home in Florida when he passed.

Pettine Sr. was the coach at Central Bucks West High School in Eastern Pennsylvania for 33 seasons and won 326 games. He also won four state championships and won three consecutive state championships before retiring in 1999. His final year as coach was documented by ESPN cameras for a series called The Season.

Pettine Sr. was 5-0 against his son before Mike Pettine Jr. went to the NFL, first with the Ravens, then as defensive coordinator with the Bills before becoming head coach of the Browns in 2014-15. Pettine Sr. was often seen at Browns training camp and other offseason activities when his son was in Cleveland.

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Cardinals bringing back return man Jeremy Ross

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 01:   Carson Palmer #3 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates his touchdown pass to Jeremy Ross #16 with Larry Fitzgerald #11 to take a 13-0 lead over the Los Angeles Rams during the second quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on January 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Cardinals brought Jeremy Ross in for a late look last year, and apparently want to take a longer one.

According to Adam Caplan of ESPN, the Cardinals have re-signed Ross to a one-year deal.

The journeyman special teamer was brought in last year after the Cards cut Michael Floyd following his DUI arrest, and appeared in two games.

He’s also spent time with the Jets, Ravens, Raiders, Lions, and Packers.

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