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Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: New Orleans Saints

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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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Giants can withdraw Pierre-Paul’s tender, but will they?

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With Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul suffering injuries from a fireworks mishap that reportedly aren’t career-threatening, the Giants now must address a more important question regarding his career: Will they rescind his franchise tender?

They can; under Article 10, Section 2(d), the franchise tender can be withdrawn at any time. It would instantly create $14.8 million in cash and cap space, but it also would make Pierre-Paul an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any team, with no compensation for the Giants if Pierre-Paul signs with a new team.

But if Pierre-Paul signs the contract, he’s entitled to $14.8 million, fully guaranteed. Article 10, Section 2(c) contains a procedure for terminating a franchise player’s contract for failure “to establish or maintain his excellent physical condition,” which would allow the Giants to pull the plug on the contract if, for example, the Giants realize after he signs the tender that his injuries will keep him from playing.

But that likewise would make Pierre-Paul a free agent. There’s one approach that wouldn’t. The Giants could determine that Pierre-Paul won’t be able to play due to a non-football injury, they can place him on the non-football injury list, and they can elect to not pay him. He would be able to file a grievance challenging the designation, but if the medical evidence due to the fireworks-related injuries is clear, he’ll have a hard time prevailing.

Regardless of how it plays out, the Giants have picked up some leverage. Whether by rescinding the tender or terminating the contract or placing him on NFI, they can drop Pierre-Paul’s compensation for 2015 from $14.8 million to whatever another team would pay a guy with an injured hand to, if they choose the NFI route, nothing. This dynamic could push Pierre-Paul’s expectations on a long-term deal toward a range that Giants are willing to satisfy.

At a minimum, the injury could result in a structure that pays Pierre-Paul based in part on his ability to play, primarily through the use of per-game roster bonuses. Since Pierre-Paul is responsible for the injuries that have now created real questions about his ability to play, he should be amenable to a contract that protects the Giants in the event that he can’t.

Either way, the clock continues to tick. The Giants and Pierre-Paul have 10 days to work out a long-term deal, or the only option will be a one-year contract.

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Jason Pierre-Paul’s fireworks injury not believed career threatening

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Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul hurt his hand in a fireworks accident on the Fourth of July, but there is some good news to report.

Pierre-Paul’s injury is not believed to be career threatening, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.

As we in the United States celebrate our nation’s birthday, fireworks are, for millions of Americans, part of the fun. But they’re not without their risks. The fifth of July is always a day full of news stories about injuries in fireworks accidents, and yesterday at least one man died while setting off fireworks.

Pierre-Paul easily could have lost his hand, or worse. If he survived this accident with his career intact, he can count himself as lucky.

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Raiders take out full-page ad to support U.S. women’s team

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As the U.S. national women’s soccer team prepares to face Japan in the final match of the World Cup, the Raiders have issued something far more significant than the perfunctory tweet in support of the effort.

Via the Sunday Night Football twitter page, the Raiders took out a full page ad in the Vancouver Sun, with a photo of star player Alex Morgan and beneath it the slogan “Just Win Baby,” along with the Raiders logo.

The match starts at 7:00 p.m. ET. The U.S. women’s team last won the World Cup in 1999.

The ad appeared in Saturday’s edition, which was the 86th anniversary of the birth of former owner Al Davis.

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Report: Jason Pierre-Paul injured in fireworks accident

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For many of us, last night was a chance to blow off some steam, if not some fingers.

But Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul might have gotten a little too close to the action.

According to Andy Slater of WINZ in Miami, Pierre-Paul “severely injured” his hand in a fireworks accident last night.

A woman who said she was his neighbor tweeted out a photo of a “truck load of fireworks,” showing large boxes in a van.

Details at this point are few, but this could potentially have a huge impact on him and the Giants, as he hasn’t signed his franchise tender worth $14.8 million, and they’d have a tremendous lack of pass rush without him if he missed an extended amount of time.

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New U-T San Diego column argues city may be better off without Chargers

Breakup

As the Chargers prepare to break up with San Diego, San Diego seems to be preparing to tell the Chargers, “I. Am Breaking up with you.”

Beyond the unscientific U-T San Diego poll that shows a preference to keep Comic-Con over keeping the Chargers, a new column from Dan McSwain of U-T San Diego argued that the town may be better off without the team.

McSwain calls a new stadium “a bad business deal for the public,” with hidden costs beyond up-front taxpayer expenses driving the contribution much higher. Then there’s the question of whether having an NFL team in town actually generates significant revenue.

As a practical matter, the column gives those not inclined to subsidize a new NFL stadium more ammunition for arguments with those who do. And if gives those who are on the fence about the issue ammunition for coming to a conclusion that having the Chargers move 90 miles up the road may not be such a bad thing.

Ultimately, it gives San Diego a way to fire a middle finger back at the franchise that currently is displaying both of them in the direction of the city.

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Ron Wolf knows Holmgren failed in Cleveland because he couldn’t find a quarterback

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Soon, Ron Wolf will enter the Hall of Fame in Canton. Just up the road resides a team with which he has multiple connections.

In addition to a short stint with the Browns in 2004 that ended quickly because then-coach Butch Davis “got a bee up wherever one gets a bee up,” Wolf had a key role in recommending the hire of Mike Holmgren as CEO by former owner Randy Lerner.

So what went wrong in Cleveland for the guy who coached the Packers team Wolf built to a Super Bowl win?

It didn’t work,” Wolf tells the Canton Repository. “I don’t know the reason why it didn’t.”

And then Wolf touched on the potential reason..

“They tried to bring a quarterback in,” Wolf said. “They brought [Colt] McCoy in, and it didn’t work. They brought [Brandon] Weeden in, and it didn’t work.”

The decision to use a first-round pick on Weeden confused Wolf.

“I was shocked when they brought Weeden in only because, from being around Mike, his first thing about a quarterback was feet,” Wolf said. “It was the first thing Mike talked about . . . feet. That guy had no feet. . . .

“To me, the No. 1 tenet in the game is, you’ve got to have a quarterback. If you don’t have a quarterback, then you can’t play. They didn’t get that guy.”

The Browns are still looking for that guy, an admission that 2014 first-rounder Johnny Manziel likely won’t become that guy and an acknowledgement that veteran Josh McCown is merely the dog-paddle option while they keep searching for that guy.

As long as there are NFL teams looking for that guy, plenty of guys who already are that guy with another team will be paid plenty of dollars to keep that guy from becoming that guy with another team.

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Mike Tice: Trent Richardson’s “quickness came around”

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There’s no clearer sign that running back Trent Richardson’s career has not gone as planned than the fact that he’s starting his fourth NFL season on his third team after being the third overall pick by the Browns in the 2012 draft.

If there’s an optimistic spin to put on Richardson signing with the Raiders after an ineffective pair of years in Indianapolis following a trade with Cleveland for a first-round pick, it’s that Richardson will get a fresh start with a new coaching staff. While discussing all of the team’s options at running back, offensive line coach Mike Tice said that the Alabama product has made a good early impression in Oakland.

“Each one has their own style,” Tice said on Sirius XM NFL Radio, via the Raiders website. “I like the [Latavius] Murray kid. He really came on in that veteran mini-camp. He got his legs under him and showed some quickness, some good finish. I thought the young man out of Alabama came on. He lost some weight, his quickness came around.”

Richardson hasn’t gotten high marks on quickness in his first two stops, making Tice’s observation a step in the right direction for a player who hasn’t taken enough of them in the last three years.

The Raiders also have Roy Helu, whose “nice hands” got a compliment from Tice as well, so there’s plenty of competition for playing time in Oakland this season. Murray is at the top of that list, but Richardson may work himself into another chance if he can keep doing things that the coaching staff likes once camp gets underway.

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Packers issue statement on Andrew Quarless, saying little

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After Packers tight end Andrew Quarless was accused of firing two shots during an argument with a group of women, it wouldn’t have been at all surprising if the Packers had issued a statement saying they had cut him. So the Packers’ actual statement is good news for Quarless.

Instead of cutting him immediately, the Packers have issued the boilerplate statement that teams often issue when a player finds himself in off-field trouble.

“We are aware of the matter involving Andrew Quarless and are in the process of gathering more information. We will withhold further comment,” the team’s statement said.

Unless the “more information” the Packers gather shows that he’s been falsely accused, there’s still a very good chance he’s going to find himself unemployed before the start of training camp.

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Odell Beckham: One-handed catch “still a little crazy to me”

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Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham made several big plays during his rookie season, but any list of his highlights will start with his leaping, one-handed touchdown catch against the Cowboys on November 23.

The Giants lost the game, although that didn’t do anything to dim the luster of Beckham’s grab in the days, weeks and months after the game. In an interview to accompany his naked photos in ESPN the Magazine, Beckham said it is “unfortunate, in a way, to be known only for ‘the catch'” because of all the things he accomplished as a rookie.

Acclaim for Beckham’s rookie output went well beyond praise for that catch, which even Beckham finds it hard to believe he pulled off.

“When I watch it, I’m like, ‘Wow, that really happened!’ It’s still a little crazy to me. I envisioned myself making some kind of catch in the end zone, but I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be,” Beckham said. “You have to have a picture of what you want to do before you can do it — I learned that from [Cardinals safety] Tyrann Mathieu. I knew that I was capable of it, but just seeing it and the reaction to it, it was by far the craziest thing that has ever happened to me.”

As long as Beckham is healthy, something the team can’t take for granted after more hamstring trouble this offseason, there should be plenty more highlights to come in 2015. None of them may surpass his catch against the Cowboys, but it will be even harder to believe that anyone knows him just for one catch if he can replicate the rest of his 2014 work.

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Ronde Barber sees “zero fear” in Jameis Winston

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Former Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber struck plenty of fear in the hearts of quarterbacks, thanks to a level of versatility that made his approach to any given play unpredictable. But Barber apparently wouldn’t have rattled new Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, because Barber sees in Winston a guy who won’t get rattled.

[H]e plays with zero fear,” Barber recently said, via JoeBucsFan.com. “He’ll let go of any ball. He has that confidence.

“I’ve played against guys that have supreme confidence in themselves and their ability to make plays. You can already see it. He has no fear letting the ball go.”

Barber said he has seen fear from Winston’s predecessor at Florida State, EJ Manuel.

“He’s timid. He holds the ball,” Barber said of Manuel. “He’s scared to deliver it when he needs to. [Winston] is the complete opposite, maybe to a detriment at times. He throws a lot of interceptions.”

Despite the interception, Barber used what he dubbed a “tired-ass cliche” in saying Winston has “that ‘it,’ that bravado, that gunslinger mentality.”

Still, the mentality has to be matched by the physicality. Can Winston hold up between the white lines against the freakish athletes who play defense in the NFL? If the answer to that question is no, he’ll end up losing his bravado, quickly.

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Austin Collie catches TD in CFL debut

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July is a very slow month in the NFL until training camps open and July 4 falling on Saturday means it has been even quieter than usual the last few days, but it was opening weekend for the B.C. Lions in the CFL.

That meant it was also time for wide receiver Austin Collie to get back on a field for a meaningful game since he was with the Patriots during the 2013 season. Collie’s NFL career, most of which was spent with the Colts, was derailed by concussions, but he’s healthy and made a positive impact in a losing cause for the Lions.

Collie caught five passes for 65 yards and a touchdown, suggesting he’s right to feel that his tank isn’t on empty yet.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s so much for the love of the game,” Collie said, via the Salt Lake Tribune. “I just felt like I wasn’t done. That feeling of not being done, that’s what kept my drive going.”

The Lions lost 27-16 to the Ottawa Redblacks in the debut for Collie and head coach Jeff Tedford, who was supposed to be the offensive coordinator in Tampa last year before a health problem kept him away from the team. Henry Burris, who had stints with the Packers and Bears, threw three touchdowns for Ottawa.

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Vick’s former dogfighting property returns to the spotlight

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For multiple years, then-Falcons quarterback Mike Vick ran a dogfighting operation under the nose of Surry County, Virginia prosecutor Gerald Poindexter. Once the dogfighting operation was discovered, Poindexter created the impression in the opinion of some (including me) that he was dragging his feet, looking for a reason not to prosecute Vick. After the federal government swooped in an obtained an indictment, a guilty plea, and an admission from Vick that he had killed multiple dogs that were deemed unfit to fight, Poindexter still wasn’t even able to get an indictment from a grand jury on state-level charges of animal cruelty.

But Poindexter was able to initiate charges against the folks who transformed Vick’s property, the site of Bad Newz Kennels, into The Good Newz Rehab Center for Chained and Penned Dogs.

As explained by the Associated Press, Poindexter filed charges against the group’s founder and executive director, Tamira Thayne, after authorities seized a pit bull from the facility. She was accused of animal cruelty and failure to provide adequate care to a companion animal, but a judge later ordered that the dog be returned. Poindexter then dropped the charges.

That wasn’t the end of it. Thayne has filed a federal lawsuit against Surry County chief animal control officer Tracy Terry and others. The lawsuit states that the charges were rooted in retribution.

“Thayne has been an outspoken critic of Surry County, Prosecutor Gerald Poindexter, and Surry County Animal Control’s anemic handling of the Michael Vick dogfighting enterprise and belated prosecution,” the civil complaint alleges.

The case is ongoing, and the Good Newz Rehab Center continues to operate, rescuing, rehabilitating, and adopting roughly 400 dogs. There are plans to expand Vick’s former property to house up to 50 dogs at a time.

Meanwhile, Vick continues to look for his next NFL opportunity, after five seasons with the Eagles and one with the Jets. There’s a belief that some teams have shied away from Vick and will continue to do so because of his dogfighting history. The publication of an AP story about his former dogfighting property during the NFL news void of Fourth of July weekend won’t make any teams that feel this way any more inclined to pursue him.

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Romo will move his fantasy football event to Los Angeles next year

Tony Romo AP

The NFL strong-armed Tony Romo into scrapping plans to host a fantasy football convention in Las Vegas. But Romo isn’t getting out of the fantasy football game.

Asked about the issue in an interview with his hometown newspaper in Burlington, Wisconsin, Romo said he was disappointed to miss the opportunity to interact with fans at the convention, but he’s going to do it again next year — in an NFL-approved venue.

“We just wanted a chance to have fans interact with their favorite players,” Romo said. “We’re going to do it next year in Los Angeles in 2016. It will be a chance to learn about fantasy football. You can learn about technique, why you should start someone versus certain coverages. Little things that the average person wouldn’t know the details on. It’d be neat to get out there and be up close with your favorite players. A bunch of Packers and Cowboys will be there. I still haven’t play fantasy football, but you see an avenue for the people to enjoy football.”

Romo was caught in the middle of the NFL’s seemingly contradictory efforts to embrace fantasy football while simultaneously distancing itself from gambling. Next year, when the league will likely be relocating a team to Los Angeles, the NFL will be all for Romo’s fantasy football event.

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Elvis Dumervil: If I get 23 sacks, we’ll be in Super Bowl

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Players can sometimes be criticized for putting individual goals ahead of team ones, but Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil has found a way to combine the two.

Dumervil enters this season 10 sacks shy of 100 for his career, but that’s not the major milestone that’s on his mind. Dumervil is taking aim at Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record by keeping a note with “23” written on it in his locker and he’s quick to point out that his motivation isn’t just about the accolades that would come from raising the bar.

“If I can hit that number, that’ll mean we’ll be in the Super Bowl for sure,” Dumervil said, via the Baltimore Sun. “You try to win games, you try to win championships. To me, there’s nothing more important, because you can have the stats and accolades, but if you’re sitting home, it really doesn’t do any justice.”

Dumervil was third in the NFL with 17 sacks last season, setting a new Ravens single-season record in the process, and he should continue to be a major threat to quarterbacks who also have to keep an eye on Dumervil’s teammate Terrell Suggs. Upping that number won’t be out of the question, although it will take more than a big year for Dumervil to land the Ravens a trip to Santa Clara next February.

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Sunday morning one-liners

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Five offensive playmakers to keep an eye on at Bills camp.

TE Arthur Lynch is hoping for a better second season with the Dolphins.

Seeing similarities between this year’s Patriots Defense and last year’s Lions unit.

QB Jake Heaps faces an uphill climb to make the Jets.

Breaking down the biggest questions about the Ravens.

DT Brandon Thompson could be a big part of the Bengals run defense.

Ron Wolf reminisced about his brief time with the Browns.

The Steelers have put together a team of their best players since 1992.

Five pass rushers the Texans will have to tangle with this season.

The Colts celebrated July 4 with a montage of national anthems.

Jaguars director of pro personnel Chris Driggers has been with the team since the beginning.

Five things to keep in mind regarding the Titans and QB Marcus Mariota.

Broncos players have kept tattoo artist Ortavio Griego busy in recent years.

The Chiefs are highlighting TE Travis Kelce’s best plays from last season.

Ten of the best quotes from late Raiders owner Al Davis.

How big a problem will TE Antonio Gates’s absence be for the Chargers?

Cowboys QB Tony Romo was nervous about throwing a pass to Luke Bryan during the Country Music Awards.

A look at the potential role for fullbacks in the Giants Offense.

The Eagles will miss facing some top defensive players thanks to suspensions early in the season.

Which Redskins backups could move into the starting lineup?

CB Kyle Fuller is learning his second scheme in as many years with the Bears.

Lions CB Darius Slay is acting as a mentor to rookie Alex Carter.

Looking ahead to training camp with Packers president Mark Murphy.

Reviewing a decade of Vikings ownership by the Wilf family.

The Falcons are one of the teams with a legitimate No. 1 receiver.

Amini Silatolu could be a key player on the Panthers offensive line.

A pre-camp preview of Saints WR Seantavius Jones.

What’s the deepest position on the Buccaneers roster?

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is one of many practitioners of deception in the world of sports.

Musing about whether the addition of QB Nick Foles makes the Rams a playoff team.

S Craig Dahl is one of the 49ers veterans who will be fighting for jobs at training camp.

Is Seahawks RB Christine Michael on the roster bubble?

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