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NFC: What To Watch For As Training Camp Sets To Open

Our Ari Ingel provides analysis, and outlines situations to follow, for all sixteen NFC teams as training camp sets to open later this month. 

There are many fantasy questions that we are seeking clarity to as training camp sets to begin later this month. In this article I tackle all 16 NFC teams. You can find my write up of the AFC here

Arizona Cardinals

There have been conflicting reports on David Johnson’s (DJ) usage this year, with some beat writers predicting that Chris Johnson (CJ) could form a time-share with DJ or even lead the way. Other beat writers have predicted that DJ would be the lead back and handle 60 percent of the touches, with CJ getting 30 and Andre Ellington 10 percent. It should be noted that Andre Ellington did play 31% of snaps in all games he was active last year, although playing snaps and getting touches is two different things and HC Bruce Arians isn’t against having both players on the field at the same time. While this situation bears watching closely, DJ’s projected 16 game pace from last season would have been 1,974 total yards, 13 TDs and 73 receptions. Watching DJ on film it is clear he is a special back and I would be surprised if he received less than 20 touches a game. We can also take solace in the words of HC Arians who said that DJ "has a chance to be one of the all-time best” running backs.

One other situation that’s worth monitoring is the ascension of third year receiver John Brown. Despite nagging hamstring issues last season, he went 65/1003/7 on 97 targets (67% catch rate, 15.4 YPC) and except for a zero in Week 10, he had at least 3 catches in every game. He also played nearly 81% of the teams snaps.

The problem is that in addition to Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson, HC Arians has also been raving about J.J. Nelson (almost a John Brown clone) and Andre Ellington, who Arians once called the best receiver on the team.  With so many mouths to feed, it’s unrealistic to envision Brown’s target share jumping up too much unless there are some injuries. It’s best to draft Brown as an upside weekly WR3.

Atlanta Falcons

Freeman did most of his damage (and serious damage it was) over only four games last year and I wouldn’t be surprised if Coleman got the ball more than people are expecting. As Matthew Berry recently pointed out, from Weeks 9 through 17 last season, Tim Hightower and Ameer Abdullah were among the 27 NFL running backs who had more rushing yards than Freeman who averaged a pathetic 3.1 yards per carry over that time frame. Berry went on to add that 46 different players had at least one run of 40-plus yards last season, while Freeman had zero.

Freeman’s bread and butter is in the passing game where he put up a 73/578 line and graded out as one of the better pass protectors in the league. Coleman on the other hand is bigger than Freeman and is a better downhill power back with 4.4 forty jets.  Some don't view Coleman to be a good fit for the teams zone blocking scheme, seeing him more as a gap scheme runner, but I think he can thrive in this offense if given the chance. This running game could very well devolve into a Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard type situation, and I am staying away from Freeman at his current ADP. To further the point, both the Falcon’s Head Coach and General Manager stated that the two backs would form a great "tandem" and the teams running back coach stated that "when it comes down to it, the one difference is the flat out long speed of Tevin Coleman."

The Falcons are devoid of any pass catchers outside of Julio Jones and Freeman.  Their big off-season signing was veteran receiver Mohamed Sanu, a 6’2” 210 lb possession receiver that is best suited playing out of the slot more than on the outside, as he will do in this offense. Sanu is a solid if unspectacular receiver who could catch 85 passes or totally flame out. He will benefit from the attention received by Julio Jones, and in a similar role in 2014, he went on a six game run, catching 32 passes for 508 yards and 3 touchdowns, which over a full season works out to 85/1,354/8. That would be an amazing ceiling for him and is not out of the question. Then again, with all the mouths to feed in Cincinnati last year he put up a pathetic 33/394/0. Working in his favor is a quality quarterback in Matt Ryan and an upgraded offensive line.

Carolina Panthers

Which wide receiver starts opposite Kelvin Benjamin this season is going to be interesting to watch. While not particularly fast, Devin Funchess is big (6’4”, 225 pounds), a good route runner and has a nose for the ball when it’s in the air. He also has a big catch radius, which helps when playing with often-erratic Cam Newton. Panthers HC Ron Rivera said that Funchess is light years ahead of where he was as a rookie heading into training camp and he looked the part during OTAs. While he saw limited action last year, he ended the regular season with a solid 7/120/1 in Week 17. If he continues this trend into camp, Funchess could be a great value, especially in standard leagues, at his current 12th round ADP. 

The sleeper to watch on the team is athletic freak Stephen Hill. Still just 25 years old, Hill is big (6’4”, 215lbs), fast (4.36 forty) and athletic  (39.5 inch vert and 11.1 foot broad jump). Panther’s wide receiver coach, Ricky Proehl said that Hill "would have pushed for a starting job" last season before tearing his ACL in training camp.  Hill has so far been impressive at spring workouts and could grab the teams other starting wide receiver spot if he shines or if Funchess falters.

Chicago Bears

To the casual fantasy player, Jeremy Langford is a bonafide stud; to the followers of Fantasy analyst Mike Clay, his name is mud.

Langford spent most of college as a wide receiver and he is an upright runner who lacks any sort of power or physical edge to his game. He is more prone to try and out-run defenders then taking it to them, leading to a rather paltry 3.6 YPC average last season. What’s more troubling is that he’s also not a dependable pass catcher, posting a league-low 52.4% catch rate among all RBs.  So how did he put up all those points last year? He is explosive in the open field, and quite frankly, everyone else was injured (Alshon, Forte, Bennett, White) and he was the only game in town. 

Enter rookie Jordan Howard (6’ 230lbs), who is the exact opposite of Langford; a nasty inside runner who likes to hit and drag defenders as he goes. Fortunately for Langford owners, Howard isn’t much of a pass catcher. As we saw in Denver and Carolina, John Fox, has no problem running with a two-man backfield, and that’s certainly how things could play out this year, with Howard getting the early and goal-line work and Langford the passing down plays. Buy shares of Howard now while you can.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys have the best offensive line in the league and we saw how dominant they could be when in 2014 DeMarco Murray averaged 4.7 yards per carry and an amazing 2.5 yards before contact, carrying the rock 393 times for 1,845 yards and 13 TDs. He also added 57 catches on 64 targets for 416 yards.  Enter 6’0 225 lbs rookie Ezekiel Elliot. He’s an all around back who is big, fast and has great hands. As long as Elliot stays healthy he will easily be worth the first round pick you need to invest to get him. This time next year, he very well could end up being the first overall pick in fantasy drafts.

So the only thing to really watch in Dallas is health. The health of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Elliot and this offensive line, because if all remain healthy, this offense will be firing on all cylinders and return greater value than the ADP all three of those players are currently being drafted at. Also working in their favor is the slew of defensive injuries and suspensions already plaguing this team.

Detroit Lions

Even though Ameer Abdullah is a smaller back (5’9” 200lbs) he has the potential to be a true feature back as he runs low to the ground, with exceptional balance, power and burst and is also a great receiver. His only knock was that he has relatively small hands; coughing up the ball 13 times in college and fumbling 5 times last season. But Abdullah started coming on a bit towards the end of last season and was 9th amongst running backs with 50 or more carries in the final eight games, averaging 4.7 yds per carry.  He also adds an explosive element to this offense that the Lions need with the departure of Calvin Johnson.

The biggest obstacles to Abdullah’s fantasy value is the presence of Theo Riddick who caught a whopping 80 passes last season (although Riddick was awful totting the rock, averaging a pathetic 3.1ypc) and the facts that goal-line carries, and some early down work, could go to either Stevan Ridley or Zach Zenner.  The battle between the latter two for that early down and goal-line work is going to be equally intriguing to watch. Ridley was brought over by new Lions GM Bob Quinn who was head of player personnel and drafted Ridley in New England.  Zenner is a SPARQ freak who showed well last pre-season. There is talent in this backfield, but how it all shakes out will be interesting to watch.

On the receiving side, in addition to the continued development of Eric Ebron, we are paying close attention to receiver T.J. Jones who could act as the teams’ deep threat and third receiver. Jones performed well in OTA’s and Stafford has expressed some enthusiasm for him. He will be competing with newly signed receivers Jeremy Kerley from the Jets and Andre Robert from Washington.

Green Bay Packers

This offense in in for a major bounce back with the return of Jordy Nelson (2.05 ADP), the addition of Jared Cook (15.07 ADP) and the slimming down of Fat Eddie Lacy (3.03 ADP). As long as everyone stays healthy during the pre-season, there is value to be had in this offense at current ADP levels, particularly with Aaron Rodgers (5.07 ADP), who will return to the top of the QB1 mountain, and Randall Cobb (3.07 ADP) who fought through injuries all last season and is just one year removed from going 91/1,287/12 in 2014.  Lack of a running game and smothering zone coverage killed Cobb’s value, but he is a great bet to bounce back and is a steal right now in drafts.

As for Jared Cook, it’s much easier to play with Aaron Rodgers than the dreck he’s had to deal with in Tennessee and St Louis.  He’s 6’5” 246lbs, runs a 4.50 forty and has a 41 inch vertical… that’s the definition of a freak athlete. At his current late 15th round ADP, there is only upside.

Los Angels Rams

Besides their Defense, right now I’m only considering drafting Todd Gurley, who is a bonafide first round fantasy pick, if not the first running back off the board. Gurley missed all of last pre-season recovering from an ACL surgery and still rushed for 1,108 yards, 10 TDs (4.8 YPC) and 21/188/0 through the air in only 13 games. He’s a rare and gifted talent that is fully healthy. Forget game script, Gurley will put up fantasy points like Adrian Peterson has done his whole career, good team or bad.

Jared Goff is the future of this team and will eventually post quality fantasy numbers and help his teammates around him, unfortunately that is probably not going to happen much this season behind one of the leagues worst offensive lines and with the leagues worst receiving core.

Tavon Austin is the best bet to put up usable fantasy numbers. Last season he saw 86 targets and went 52/473/5 through the air adding an additional 52/434/4 on the ground. With teams focusing on Todd Gurley, Austin’s number could certainly improve this season making him a viable WR3 with some upside.

Unless Goff performers really well in the pre-season, Kenny Britt and Brian Quick are best left on waiver wires outside of deep bench leagues, but they are both at least starting wide receivers on a team that may have to throw a bit more than usual with a weaker defense this year. I’m a big fan of rookie Mike Thomas (the other Mike Thomas) out of Southern Miss who stands 6’1” 200lbs and ran a 4.5 forty at the combine. He needs to improve getting off the line of scrimmage versus press coverage, but he plays much bigger than size, is a great route runner, hard worker and has solid after the catch ability. He’s a great dynasty hold that can grow into forming a great QB/WR combo with Goff for the future.

Minnesota Vikings

The offense will once again funnel through Adrian Peterson, who despite another rstatisitcally great year seemed to lose just a bit of a step. The key for fantasy is whether Teddy Bridgewater step up to become more than a lower case Alex Smith.

He clearly is not a guy that can chuck it deep, so gone is Mike Wallace and in is rookie Laquon Treadwell and second year revelation Stefon Diggs. Both players thrive on short passes and their run after the catch ability, which suites Bridgewater perfectly. The team is also playing indoors this season, so this offense has the potential under OC Norv Turner to be more explosive. So hopefully Bridgewater can at least become Alex Smith who had similar passing numbers with 6 more TDs. Now we just have to see which one of these guys is going to be Jeremy Maclin.

New Orleans Saints

In a supposed down year for Drew Brees, due in part to a shoulder injury, he still finished tied for third in fantasy scoring. Brees has now been a top 5 fantasy quarterback in every season he has been a member of the Saints. With a top 10 offensive line, a bottom tier defense, a slew of new weapons (Coby Fleener, Michael Thomas) and younger players (Willie Snead, Brandon Cooks, Mark Ingram) coming into their prime, this is an offense you want to own a piece of, and Brees may be the most consisent piece. 

Brandin Cooks is still just 22 years old and his 84/1,138/9 line from last year should be his floor. Meanwhile Willie Snead was a revelation last year and HC Sean Payton said he expects Snead to take a "big step forward" this season. Snead also just got a glowing review in Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception methodology. Meanwhile Mark Ingram was fantasy’s number 3 running back before getting hurt last season in Week 13 and posted a solid 50/405 through the air on 59 targets (85% catch rate) with 8.1 YPR in only 12 games.  Although, it should also be noted that he’s only played more than 13 games just once in his five year career.

A lot of people don’t trust Coby Fleener, and for good reason, as he has dropped far too many passes over the years. But Fleener is a great route runner, knows how to get open and Drew Brees maximizes the talent around him.  HC Peyton will use Fleener as a moveable chess piece especially in the red zone where they need to replace departed tight end Ben Watson’s 18 red zone targets. And the red zone is where Fleener thrives, scoring eleven of his eighteen career touchdowns in the red zone. Fleener also stands 6’6” while the teams starting wide receivers, Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, stand just 5’10” and 5’11” respectively.

New York Giants

I wouldn’t be surprised for Sterling Shepard to have a Jarvis Landry type rookie campaign, going 84/758/5 his rookie year. In fact, there is a good chance for Shepard to exceed those numbers as the number two target in this offense. Posting a 4.48 forty and monstrous 41” vertical at the combine, Shepard is capable of playing both outside and in the slot, making him a candidate to lead all rookie receivers this year.

The other player to watch is fellow rookie Paul Perkins. While healthy, Rashad Jennings’ will be the teams leading ball carrier, but now 31 and showing an inability to stay healthy over the years, the door could be open for Perkins to have a bigger role.  Perkins doesn’t have great top end speed, but there is a bit of Frank Gore to his game, running with good balance and control in addition to being a good pass protector and pass catcher out of the backfield.

Philadelphia Eagles

Lots of questions here: 1) Can Ryan Mathews stay healthy? If so, he could return high end RB2 numbers 2) We need to continue to monitor impressive rookie running back Wendall Smallwood, who looked impressive during OTA’s and has a shot to put up big numbers if given a shot 3) Can Nelson Agholor turn the corner after a disappointing rookie season? He’s too talented not to take a step forward, that is, unless he goes to jail for the sexual assault charges he is currently facing 4) Will Jordan Matthews, who looked horrible trying to play on the outside during OTAs, see a dip in his numbers now that Chip Kelly is gone? Matthews is destined to be over drafted this year due to a dip it  volume and target share 5) Can Rueben Randle show some consistency that has alluded him his whole career? Doubtful, but he will be a hot waiver wire commodity at some point, only to disappoint once again 6) Will new HC Doug Pederson feature Zach Ertz, the teams most talented pass catcher? He certainly should and 6) Will Sam Bradford be motivated to play well? I think he puts up solid, if unspectacular QB2 numbers.

San Francisco 49ers

With Chip Kelly in town there will be fantasy value to be had in this offense. The Eagles ran the most plays out of any team in the NFL during Kelly’s tenure in Philadelphia.

An up-tempo offense that tends to run a lot should benefit Carlos Hyde. Game script (ie: the 49ers have a horrible defense and will have to play catch-up) could possibly hinder his volume in 4th quarters and cap having a monstrous upside. However, he’s still a good bet to catch 2 or 3 passes a game and the sheer number of plays earlier in the game will still see him touch the ball 300+ times on the season. Hyde also has experience running Chip Kelly’s inside zone running scheme, which was a poor fit for Demarco Murray last season, and forced 35 missed tackles on 126 touches last year, second best in the league. Hyde’s a great selection in the 4th round for those that wait on running back or are looking to grab their RB2.

Torrey Smith, as the teams’ number one receiver, should see his fare share of targets. Although, I would caution not to buy into the Torrey Smith hype if his ADP continues to rise and I also would not confuse him with a well rounded receiver capable of putting up wide receiver one numbers. He’s still an unpolished route runner and a not a receiver who truly commands the ball despite being able to gain separation with his athletic ability when he goes deep. Many people like to point to the production of Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jordan Mathews under Chip Kelly. I can assure you that Smith is not as talented as either Jackson or Maclin, and Mathews played out of the slot, not a position Smith will be playing.

One camp battle to watch is that between CFL star Eric Rogers and second year receiver DeAndre Smelter. Whoever wins this battle has theoretical upside as the teams’ bigger possession receiver.

The more intriguing receiver to watch is slot receiver Bruce Ellington who stands 5’9” 197lbs with 4.45 forty speed. He hasn’t done much so far in his NFL career, but he is a plus athlete and has been flashing at OTA’s. He’s been handling slot duties so far and that is a great position of fantasy value in a Chip Kelly offense, which saw Jordan Matthews (who looked terrible at times) go 85/997/8 last season. He’s no lock just yet, but if he continues to shine in the pre-season, he could easily catch 80+ passes in this offense.

Lastly, the quarterback battle between Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick will finally get underway with Kaepernick fully recovered from shoulder knee and thumb surgery. While everyone was focused on the NFL teams actually winning last season, Gabbert quietly played pretty well for the Niners, achieving his best completion percentage of his career (62%). He didn’t play scared like he did on the Jaguars and while he played it a bit safe, Alex Smith style, the team really didn’t have good coaches or much of a supporting cast. HC Chip Kelly likes to play fast and run a ton of plays, which has led to Kelly coached quarterbacks seeing an uptick in both their yards per attempt and completion percentages. Gabbert is a plus athlete and can run too, clocking a 4.61 forty at the combine. If he wins the job, and either Eric Rogers or DeAndre Smelter can emerge as a compliment to Torrey Smith and Bruce Ellington, he just may surprise as a solid QB2.

Seattle Seahawks

Despite better pocket play by Russell Wilson last season, this is team is still built on the run. When Thomas Rawls and Marshawn Lynch were healthy last season, Wilson averaged around 27 pass attempts a game. After both went down with injury, he averaged around 32 a game, a slight, but decent boost. Wilson's number of attempts have gone up every year, last year finishing with 483. For reference, the Top 10 QBs have over 550 attemtps and if Wilson hovers around 32 this year, he will have around 512. Will they let him throw it more than 500 times this season? If Rawls is healthy, look for Wilson to average 30 attempts a game once again, capping the upside of Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, especially if Jimmy Graham comes back healthy (a big if at this point coming off a devasting injury).   If Rawls can't get healthy, I think 500+ is realistic. 

As ESPN’s Matthew Berry pointed out, the Seahawks were the only team in the NFL to run the ball at least 500 times in each of the past two seasons. And for those scared that Thomas Rawls can’t get it done for fantasy because he doesn’t catch passes, here is some more stats from Matthew Berry for you:

  • Last season, on Thomas Rawls' first 10 carries, he averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
  • On carries 11-20, Rawls averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
  • From carry 21 on, Thomas Rawls averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
  • In the five weeks that Marshawn Lynch did not play and Rawls both started and finished games, Rawls averaged 18.4 fantasy points per game in ESPN standard scoring.

There is some talk that Rawls is limited due to lack of passing down work, but last season when starting he averaged 20.5 touches, 120 yards and 0.84 TDs a game with a 5.6 yards per carry average. That's RB1 production right there all day. 

The Seahawks did draft intriguing rookie C.J. Prosise in the third round to be the teams’ passing down back. However, after playing slot receiver and on special teams, Prosise played just one year of running back in college. Adjusting to the pro game after just one season as a running back is a tall order, especially when it comes to pass protection. How quickly he can make the transition will determine how much field time he sees. It should also be noted that both Robert Turbin and Fred Jackson, who manned this role for the Seahawks previously under HC Pete Carroll, were essentially unusable for fantasy football purposes.  Rawls handcuff is most likely to be either the great unicorn, Christine Michael, or rookie thumper, Alex Collins

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With the re-signing of Doug Martin this offseason, Charles Simms looks likely to put up similar numbers as last year, where he played around 50% of the teams snaps, making him a solid PPR flex option and great DFS play in positive matchup’s. Last season he averaged a very solid 4.9 yards per carry to go along with a nearly 80% catch rate and 11 yards per reception. In the event that Martin gets hurt, Simms would become a rock solid RB1 in PPR leagues and possibly a league winning player for your team.

Kenny Bell (6’1”, 197 pounds, 4.42 forty and 41.5 inch vertical) is a Matt Waldman favorite and an explosive player. He needs to clean up his route running (and actually win the WR3 job), but he’s a physical player with good hands. HC Dirk Koetter’s likes to often run a “Four Vertical” offense that should see Bell see the field pretty often despite the presence of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. With Jackson entering his age 33 season, there is also a chance he can push V Jax for starting duties if father time starts to make his presence felt. Bell is someone to watch closely in camp and someone to take a flier on in deep leagues.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins is mountain of a man with an attitude problem. He was kicked out of practice during OTA’s and HC Koetter mentioned that Cameron Brate (an UDFA third year player out of Harvard) could possibly start over him. The situation is worth monitoring, but neither is worth a draft slot with better options available in drafts. Let someone else deal with this headache.

Washington Redskins

One thing we are certain of is that despite his own limitations, Kirk Cousins has one of the leagues best receiving units at his disposal and is a steal in 11th or 12th rounds right now. Last season he threw for 4,166 yards with 29 TDs and only 11 Ints. We can look for those touchdown numbers to go up this season.  Cousins' is also a a good redzone quarterback, in a contract year and great at running the bootleg in the redzone, where he rushed for 5 TDs last season. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how this wide receiver corps shakes out during camp as they have weapons for days in Desean Jackson, Jordan Reed, Pierre Garcon, Josh Doctson, Ryan Grant and Jamison Crowder.Reed and Jackson are too talented to be kept off the field and both are difference makers that help open up space for everyone else around them.

Who starts opposite DJax and who operates in the slot will come down to a battle between Garcon, Doctson and Crowder. While Crowder played well in the slot last year, I doubt he will be able to hold off both Garcon and Doctson for that role this year. 

Doctson is a future star who compares favorably to Allen Robinson and even A.J. Green. He stands 6’2” 202lbs with 4.5 forty jets and a monster 41" vertical and 10'11" broad jump. He’s a natural pass catcher and good route runner who snatches the ball out of the air.

Meanwhile, the fantasy community is ready to write off Garcon for the teams shiny new toys, but he’s morphed into a solid possession receiver that won’t go out without a fight. Just because we try to ignore he’s there, unfortunately it won’t make him go away. Last season he finished with 72/777/6 receiving on 110 targets.

The development of Matt Jones is also going to be interesting to watch. Jones wasn’t very productive in college and when given a chance to run away with the starting job last season, he literally fumbled it away, coughing it up five times on only 163 carries. While Jones certainly looks the part (6’2” 231lbs), his hair and body flying in all directions as he runs is made to deceive.  When asked to just run power straight ahead, he did hit the holes well and didn’t mind generating some contact, however when running zone, he seemed to look lost and dance around the line far too much. After all was said and done, he averaged only 3.4 YPC. Yuck.

HC Jay Gruden seems intent on letting Jones run with the job and, as long as he doesn’t fumble it away again, he could put up Latavius Murray 2015 type numbers (1,066/6 rushing). Also like Murray, he seems destined to leave a lot of yards on the field, even though for fantasy, the numbers will be fairly decent. There is something to be said about just having opportunity, and Jones currently has it.

The other guy to watch is rookie Keith Marshall who hasn’t shown well just yet and is very raw, but could come on as the pre-season progresses.  Marshall was a big time recruit in college but dealt with a bevy of injuries. Standing 5’11” 219lbs and with ridiculous 4.31 forty wheels, Marshall just might steal the job away from Jones by mid-season. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they signed another running back before the season starts and Marshall ends up on the practice squad.

Miscellaneous

Two guys currently unsigned that could make fantasy noise are ol’ timers Arian Forster and Anquan Boldin.

Arian Foster is this seasons boogieman that will scare fantasy owners more than help their teams. Foster still isn’t cleared to play and after years of dealing with soft tissue injuries, he looked dead legged in limited action last season. Now coming off an often career ending Achilles tear, there may be little production left in Forster. Foster does have excellent vision and great hands, so it’s not out of the question that he can help an NFL team, but probably not your fantasy team.

Anquan Boldin on the other hand has barely missed any games throughout his long career. Never very fast, at 35 years old Boldin is still capable of using his man strength to dominate the boys that play the second and third cornerback spots. He is one of the better-run runners in the league and is as sure handed as they come. Landing spot is key for Boldin. On a team like the 49ers, he’s nothing more than a bye week replacement or sporadic DFS play, but if he happens to land on a team like the Patriots, Lions, Packers or the like, he could end up being a decent WR3 in PPR leagues.

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