SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:
FAB 1. DOMINANT DONALD AN IDEAL FIRST-ROUND PICK FOR BUCSWhen Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith said that one of the top three quarterbacks in the 2014 NFL Draft would likely fall to the team he knows what he’s talking about. The top three quarterbacks in the draft – Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and UCF’s Blake Bortles – are all decent prospects, and there are four teams in the top five that could use new signal callers, including Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Oakland. Conventional wisdom says that by the time the Raiders pick with the fifth overall selection that all three QBs will be gone.
But the problem is that this is the deepest and most talented draft in years according to many talent evaluators, including new Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht. While Bridgewater, Manziel and Bortles are very good quarterbacks, each has holes in his game and none are in the class of Andrew Luck, who was the first overall pick by Indianapolis two years ago.
Players like South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack could be viewed as better football players. But given the need for upper echelon quarterbacks in the NFL, teams will take a chance on a player like Manziel or Bortles becoming a franchise quarterback instead of a player that may be more of a sure bet like Clowney or Matthews.
So where does that leave Tampa Bay, which has the seventh overall pick? Potentially in good position to trade down as the Bucs did a few years ago when the team slid down from the fifth overall selection to the seventh where it drafted Alabama strong safety Mark Barron while picking up a fourth-round pick from Jacksonville. With multiple holes on its roster and currently only five selections due to the trade for Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis (third-rounder to New York) and offensive tackle Gabe Carimi (sixth rounder to Chicago) in a very deep draft, it would behoove Smith and Licht to trade down a few spots and acquire more picks.
The reason why I would make a trade down to around the 10th overall pick if possible and bypass the chance to get a franchise tackle, an impact edge rusher or even one of the top three quarterbacks is not just to get more picks if I was Tampa Bay. It would also be for Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who backed up a terrific Senior Bowl with a sensational workout at the NFL Scouting Combine. Donald is one of the fastest rising players in the draft and could have vaulted himself into the top 10 on Monday at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.65 in the 40-yard dash.
The 6-foot-1, 285-pound Donald is smaller than most NFL talent evaluators would like, but he has incredibly long arms (32 and 5/8 inches) for his size, and repped 225 pounds an impressive 35 times in Indianapolis. But those numbers aren’t the ones that intrigue me.
Donald has been a dominant force in college football over the past two seasons, recording 59 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles last year.
So with Gerald McCoy coming off an All Pro season that resulted in his second consecutive Pro Bowl, why in the Bucs want to “waste” the seventh overall pick on another three technique defensive tackle? Actually, it wouldn’t be a waste at all.
The Bucs surprised everyone by targeting Barron with the seventh overall pick, picking him over Boston College Luke Kuechly, who made his first Pro Bowl after the 2013 season. Drafting Donald would surely be a shock to some Bucs fans, who might be expecting the team to select a defensive end, an offensive tackle or a quarterback, but acquiring another pass-rushing defensive tackle makes a ton of sense for a multitude of reasons.
First, the three-technique position is the most important in the Tampa 2. The Bucs are blessed to have a dominant player like McCoy on the roster, but don’t have any viable depth behind him. By that I mean that there’s not even a starting-caliber defensive tackle player McCoy, let alone a dynamic playmaker of his class.
After seeing his first two seasons end prematurely on injured reserve due to torn biceps, McCoy has played in all 16 games over the past two years. But if McCoy were to succumb to injury again, the Bucs would be absolutely screwed, as the three-technique is the engine for Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s defense.
Aside from the lack of a talented backup, the fact that McCoy is entering a contract year also concerns the Buccaneers. It’s doubtful that the team would let McCoy get away, although his salary cap figure for 2014 is $15.6 million, due in large part to a $12,732,253 base salary, and he will likely want Ndamukong Suh money as the Detroit Pro Bowl defensive tackle will also be seeking a new high-priced contract before the 2015 season.
McCoy’s contract number is so high due to the fact that he was a first-round pick prior to the rookie salary cap that was instituted in 2012 with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik was hoping to extend McCoy last year after Cincinnati Pro Bowler, Geno Atkins, who is widely regarded as the league’s best three-technique tackle, signed a five-year, $54.755-million extension.
Atkins’ contract averages just under $11 million per season and includes a $15 million signing bonus. That deal averages less per year than McCoy (or Suh) will make in 2014, and that’s why Dominik pushed to get it, but McCoy’s camp wasn’t ready.
Drafting Donald gives the Bucs a safeguard in case of an injury to McCoy or he gives the a replacement in case he somehow gets away in free agency, and that’s the second reason why using the team’s first-round pick on him makes sense. At the very least, having a talented player like Donald onboard gives the Bucs a small bit of leverage in contract negotiations with McCoy’s camp.
The third reason is that McCoy and Donald could easily co-exist in the starting lineup as early as this year. The Bucs have some doubts about Akeem Spence, who has limited pass rush ability as a nose tackle. The team sees him as a two-down run stuffer that offers little in getting after the quarterback.
Pairing McCoy and Donald together would give Tampa Bay two ultra-quick, penetrating defensive tackles like the team tried to have back in 2010 with McCoy and nose tackle Brian Price, who played the three-technique at UCLA, and back in the glory days with Warren Sapp paired with Brad Culpepper and Anthony “Booger” McFarland, who weren’t traditional nose tackles. Culpepper and McFarland had the quickness to be very good pass rushers. They weren’t just one-dimensional run-stuffers during the Bucs’ hey day, either.
Culpepper ranks sixth in franchise history with 33 career sacks. McFarland posted 20 in eight years with Tampa Bay. At the very least, the Bucs could use Spence on primary run downs and then team McCoy with Donald in the sub packages in nickel defense on traditional passing situations during his rookie season.
While there are other defensive tackles in the draft that would fit the Tampa 2 scheme, including Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, a first-rounder, and Arizona State’s Will Sutton, a third-rounder, and Princeton’s Caraun Reid, a late-rounder, both of whom had 20.5 sacks in their respective careers, Donald is a very special player whose quickness off the snap and ability to redirect are the most reminiscent of Sapp in my opinion. In the Tampa 2, Donald is a unique player that can make an instant impact.
If I was calling the shots in Tampa Bay I may forego the opportunity to trade down and just take Donald at No. 7 and solidify the three-technique position for years to come. If not, a team like Chicago, which is picking 14th or Dallas, which is picking 16th may trade up to get him.
FAB 2. BUCS SHOW INTEREST IN DONALD, WHO WANTS TO COME TO TAMPAI had the chance to interview Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald at the Senior Bowl and came away just as impressed with his confident, yet humble manner, as I was his ability to dominate the line of scrimmage and push Baylor guard Cyril Richardson around like a rag doll. During Monday’s one-on-one pass rush drills, The 6-foot, 285-pound defensive tackle used his suddenness to explode into the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Richardson so violently that Donald actually pancaked the massive offensive lineman.
“He’s a great player,” Donald said. “I’m just going out there and competing. When you go out there and compete with the best players I respect them because they’re trying to do the same thing I’m doing. They are getting the bumps and bruises, too. He’s a great player, and I’ve enjoyed competing against him.
“When you have a fast get-off and leverage on somebody it’s always going to be an advantage I have. I try to use it the best way I know how.”
While critics of his game paint Donald as too undersized to be effective at the next level, all the Panthers star does is shut them up. Whether it was winning the Outland Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Award as a senior during an All-American campaign, or dominating at the Senior Bowl during the week and during the game where he recorded a sack, or shining at the NFL Scouting Combine with a blistering 4.65 in the 40-yard dash, Donald continues to prove himself to the point where he was worked his way into the top 15 in the 2014 NFL Draft.
His lack of size is combated by the old adage you can’t hit what you can’t see. Donald is unblockable at times because of his lightning quick get-off. He’s a twitchy athlete with incredible hands and one of the most polished swim moves of any defensive lineman heading into the NFL.
“I learned my swim move in high school and over the years I’ve practiced it and perfected my craft,” Donald said. “Sometimes you don’t realize what you did or how fast you get back there [in the backfield] until you go back and watch the film and see what you did.”
That was the case against Duke when he got into the backfield so fast that he tackled both the quarterback and the running back the QB was trying to hand the ball off to at the same time. Not many college players could do accomplish that feat. It’s that type of elite quickness that could make Donald an impact starter as a rookie.
“I feel like I can make an impact in the NFL,” Donald said. “I feel like I’m going to continue to grow and continue to become a student of the game and learn a lot more about the game of football. I want to be a better football player. I want to learn from the best, too.”
Donald revealed to me that he has spent countless hours watching the current Pro Bowl defensive tackles and the NFL legends trying to hone his craft. And it just so happens that his favor player is a certain Tampa Bay Hall of Famer.
“I love Warren Sapp,” Donald said. “It’s starts there with him. I’ve watched a lot of [Ndamukong] Suh and Geno Atkins. Geno’s a smaller guy like me, but he’s explosive and makes a ton of plays.”
When asked if he had spent time with Tampa Bay at the Senior Bowl, Donald smiled and shook his head. Despite the Bucs already having a two-time Pro Bowl three-technique tackle like Gerald McCoy already on the roster, Donald jumped at the opportunity to proclaim his desire to join McCoy and follow in Sapp’s footsteps.
“It would be great to have an older guy like Gerald to learn from and make myself better and make an impact with him,” Donald said. “I interviewed with the Bucs and it went great. You never know.”
FAB 3. MACK WOULD BE A GREAT FIT FOR BUCS’ FRONT FOUR – NOT LB CORPSWhile I happen to think that Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald would be a fantastic first-round pick for Tampa Bay, Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack is the most universal fit in a lot of the mock drafts for the Buccaneers by well-respected media outlets on the Internet, such as Sports Illustrated’s Audibles, CBS’ NFLDraftScout.com’s Dane Brugler and Pat Kirwan – and with good reason. Mack is a big-time playmaker and turned in an All-American senior season with 100 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and three interceptions.
With 327 tackles, 75 tackles for loss, 28.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and four interceptions in his Buffalo career, Mack is one of the most productive defenders in the 2014 NFL Draft. In fact, his 75 tackles for loss and 16 forced fumbles are NCAA records.
NFL Network’s draft guru Mike Mayock loves Mack and thinks he’s the best defender in the draft.
“He’s explosive off the edge, he’s tough, he’s twitchy, he’s got a little edge about him,” Mayock said. “You talk about a kid like [Jadeveon] Clowney, who’s just got superhuman abilities, versus this kid, and if I had a choice between the two, I think I’m taking Mack.”
Mack’s performance against Ohio State caught everyone’s attention when he recorded nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and had a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown. Mack also had a sack and a forced fumble negated by a penalty.
“He dominated Ohio State like nobody I’ve ever seen dominate them,” said Mayock, who also said Mack is “really a good kid off the field.”
Mayock called Mack, who has drawn comparisons to Denver’s pass-rushing outside linebacker Von Miller, a prototype outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but also said the Bulls star would fit as a strongside (Sam) linebacker in a 4-3 defense and would thrive as a pass rusher.
But that’s where draft gurus are missing the mark with Mack. If Tampa Bay drafts him, Mack will be a defensive end for the Buccaneers for two reasons. The first, is that the Sam linebacker position is one of the least valued positions in the Tampa 2, coming off the field in nickel defense, which is played roughly 50-60 percent of the time in the NFL these days.
Second, the Bucs desperately need a speed rusher off the edge and haven’t had a player like that since Simeon Rice was in Tampa Bay in 2005. Mack’s value to the Buccaneers is a sackmaster that can create turnovers by rushing the passer.
Now it’s not to say that Mack couldn’t play a few downs as a blitzing Sam linebacker in a 4-3 and then transition to defensive end on obvious passing downs. But the reality is that the 6-foot-3, 251-pound Mack would be best served by adding 10 pounds of bulk to help anchor against the run and be Tampa Bay’s starting right defensive end in the mold of Indianapolis’ undersized defensive ends Dwight Freeney, who left the Colts after the 2012 season, and Robert Mathis.
The Fort Pierce, Fla. native was a teammate of Buccaneers defensive end Steven Means, who raved about Mack in December to PewterReport.com.
“He can do whatever a team needs him to do in a 4-3 or a 3-4,” Means said. “He’s had enough practice in space covering guys, and as you can see, he can get after the quarterback. He has hands and he’s gotten interceptions and a couple of pick-sixes. He’s the total package.
“He’s a man amongst boys out there this year. He’s in the perfect situation. He’s a great guy and his character isn’t an issue. He’s fast, explosive and strong. I’m looking to see him go real early in the draft.”
While Means hoped the Bucs would draft Mack so the two could be reunited, the reality is that Mack would likely end up replacing Means, who is considered to be a long shot to make the roster, especially given his sparse production during his rookie season.
“He’s the type of player, like me, who’s never satisfied,” Means said. “He just takes it to another level with the forced fumbles. He’s never the type of player that is satisfied with the tackle. He’s trying to get the strip and force a fumble every time he’s making a tackle. That’s something that has definitely helped him get to this point of his career.”
With Smith’s defense putting a huge emphasis on takeaways, having a player that set the NCAA record for forced fumbles with 16 in his career, and a player that has created a combined 24 takeaways at Buffalo would make Mack a perfect addition to the Buccaneers defense.
FAB 4. WHICH BUCCANEERS ARE POSSIBLE TRADE BAIT?The big buzz this week in Tampa Bay was the report by Jason LaCanfora that stated that the Buccaneers have been approached by other teams about trading Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. While it’s easy for outsiders to think that man-coverage specialist like Revis wouldn’t be a good fit for a zone scheme, but that’s a misguided approach.
The Tampa 2 scheme that Lovie Smith is bringing back to the Bucs deploys both zone and man coverage concepts and Revis would actually be an ideal fit. Former Bucs cornerback Donnie Abraham, who was a Revis-type player in Tampa Bay from 1996-2001 where he recorded 37 interceptions, told PewterReport.com that Revis would thrive in the Tampa 2.
“He will perfectly,” Abraham said. “When I see a bunch of the stuff about the Bucs cutting him or trading him and he won’t fit in this system, I’m thinking, ‘Are you crazy?’ For this guy to have the talent that he has and to be a shutdown corner he will flourish in this system. He can do it all. He can play man, and he can play zone. He’s smart. He’s going to be put in position with this scheme to make plays. I personally think he’s going to make more plays in this system than he has ever been in.”
The Bucs defense was dominant in the 1990s and early 2000s not just because of its ferocious front four led by defensive tackle Warren Sapp, but also by a stout secondary featuring three talented cornerbacks in Abraham, Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. Smith needs three great cornerbacks to make Tampa Bay’s defense stellar once again, and trading Revis would only hurt that endeavor, not help it.
Trading Revis – no matter his salary cap value of $16 million this season, nor the draft picks he could fetch – doesn’t make sense for the present day Buccaneers, which have only second-year player Johnthan Banks as a viable candidate to start at cornerback aside from Revis. But what Buccaneers could be dangled on the trading block to help Tampa Bay, which only has five selections in the 2014 NFL Draft, acquire more picks?
The reality is that the Bucs aren’t nearly as talented as many, including PewterReport.com, assumed they would be entering the 2013 season, evidenced by a 4-12 record. Tampa Bay isn’t going to part ways with established star players, such as running Doug Martin, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David or wide receiver Vincent Jackson, because it needs to keep what little talent the team has.
And aging, high-priced starters, such as left tackle Donald Penn and right guard Davin Joseph, who are both 30 and are coming off sub-par years won’t fetch anything on the trade market, nor will a player like left guard Carl Nicks, who hasn’t played 10 total games over the past two years in Tampa Bay. The reality is that there aren’t many players that other NFL teams would want to pluck off the Bucs’ roster outside of Revis that the team would even entertain the thought of dealing.
So which Bucs are the most likely to be traded? PewterReport.com takes a look at four long-shot possibilities that would make the most sense.
• DE Da’Quan Bowers – A team may take a flier on Bowers and offer up a late-round pick on the underachieving defensive end based upon the fact the was a highly touted prospect in the 2011 draft before falling to the second round due to offseason knee surgery. There is some untapped potential in Bowers, but the new coaching staff may want to invest in new defensive ends in free agency and the draft and coach up the likes of returning ends Adrian Clayborn and Will Gholston instead.
Bowers, who has 5.5 sacks in his three-year career and had just one in 2013, is entering a contract year, which makes any trade risky for the team that may want to acquire him.
• WR Mike Williams – While Williams has been ultra-productive during his career in Tampa Bay, catching 23 touchdowns and averaging 910 yards per year during his first three seasons, he succumbed to a torn hamstring in 2013 that caused his production (22 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns) to dip as he missed half the season, but he will be ready for the 2014 campaign. Williams has upset the Bucs’ brass with his off-field antics and brushes with the law. The new regime wants solid citizens and fast football players, and Williams is not a boy scout, nor is he a burner. While he does have a sizeable contract, he only counts $1.8 million against the salary cap in 2014 and could be dealt for a mid-round pick to a receiver-needy team like New England, which has been a haven for wayward Buccaneers.
• RB Bobby Rainey – The previous Bucs regime told PewterReport.com that the team wasn’t going to trade Rainey due to the need for depth at the running back position, and the new regime might not either. But due to the fact that he was productive over the second half of the season in rushing for 566 yards with six total touchdowns makes him a tradable commodity. However, running backs are a dime a dozen in the NFL and Rainey would likely bring just a late-round pick at best. The Bucs would be best served keeping Rainey and letting him compete for playing time behind Doug Martin.
• RB Jeff Demps – Demps was injured right as his pro football career in Tampa Bay was beginning with a torn groin that required season-ending surgery. The 5-foot-7, 191-pound Demps had one run for 14 yards and three catches for 21 yards in two games last year, but what makes him attractive to the Bucs and other NFL teams is his world class speed, which is sub-4.3 in the 40-yard dash. Tampa Bay wants to acquire fast players rather than get rid of them, but the Bucs have a crowded backfield with the likes of Martin, Rainey and Mike James, which makes Demps one of the more attractive commodities to potentially trade for a late-round pick. However, Demps’ speed could serve the Bucs well as a situational runner or slot receiver, and as a return specialist, which makes him being on the trading block unlikely.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• PewterReport.com first reported that the Buccaneers could be in the running for Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft in an SR’s Fab 5 column back in January. Then Carr, who is widely regarded as the fourth-best quarterback in this year’s draft, debuted as PewterReport.com’s first-round pick in its initial mock draft in January.
Carr really helped himself at the NFL Scouting Combine, showing off incredible position that was as good – or better in some cases – than Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. Much was made about Manziel’s 4.68 time in the 40-yard dash, but Carr ran an eye-opening 4.69 mark and was just a tick behind him.
Manziel had a 31.5-inch vertical jump, a 113-inch broad jump and a 4.03 time in the 20-yard shuttle, which was best among quarterbacks. Carr had a 34.5-inch vertical jump, a 110-inch broad jump and a great 4.20 time in the 20-yard shuttle.
“I ran track in high school,” Carr told PewterReport.com at the Senior Bowl. “I can run, but I’m going to beat you throwing the football. That’s how you win Super Bowls. You win from the pocket. That’s how the game is played in my eyes for whatever’s that worth.”
The 40-yard dash times of Carr and Maziel were far superior to that of first-round prospect Blake Bortles, who ran a 4.93, and second-round prospect Jimmy Garappolo, who ran a 4.97 and wasn’t as athletic as NFL scouts were anticipating. At 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, Carr has more size than Manziel, who measured just under 6-feet tall and weighing 207 pounds, and solidified himself as at least a mid-first-rounder – and a potential dark horse pick for the Buccaneers – with a surprisingly fine showing in Indianapolis.
• I wonder if D’Qwell Jackson would entertain the idea of playing for Tampa Bay? Jackson, who has spent the last eight years in Cleveland, is a native of Largo, Fla. and grew up a huge fan of the Buccaneers. The 30-year old Jackson has compiled 824 tackles, 11.5 sacks, eight interceptions, seven fumble recoveries, five forced fumbles and has played in all 16 games in each of the past three seasons.
Jackson, who was released by Cleveland as a salary cap casualty, is visiting Tennessee and Denver, but plans to make some other stops to undisclosed teams. If one of them is the Buccaneers they could possibly get a hometown discount from the 6-foot, 240-pound fiery leader and playmaker. New Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop and defensive line coach Joe Cullen were both in Cleveland last year and could offer head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht some insight into Jackson.
If the Bucs don’t have any interest in Jackson, it might mean that they feel comfortable moving forward with Mason Foster, a three-year starter, as the veteran challenger for the middle linebacker spot in the Tampa 2 defense. A secondary challenger could be found in the draft where the Bucs have met extensively with LSU’s Lamin Barrow both at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine.
The 6-foot-1, 237-pound Barrow was one of the fastest linebackers in Indianapolis, running a 4.64 and benched 22 reps of 225 pounds with some of the biggest hands (10 3/8 inches) and longest arms (33 3/8 inches) for a linebacker. He could be an option for Tampa Bay in the middle rounds.
• While NFL Network’s Mike Mayock is a huge fan of Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, who many draft gurus have forecasted to Tampa Bay, there are a slew of dissenters among Mayock’s co-horts. Four mock drafters at NFL.com – Bucky Brooks, Matt Smith, Daniel Jeremiah and Charles Davis –all have Tampa Bay taking UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr in their latest mock draft. Surprisingly, Brooks, Smith and Davis all have the Bucs selecting Barr over Mack.
If I had to choose one or the other, I would take Mack based on his motor, which always seems to be running high. While Barr has the potential to make a few big impact plays per game too with his athleticism, there have been too many times on film where his backside pursuit is lackluster. In fact, it might even be described as a loaf.
• Cal has several players in the 2014 NFL Draft, including tight end Richard Rodgers, defensive tackle Deandre Coleman and linebacker Khairi Fortt that could be interesting fits in Tampa Bay. Former Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, who is the Bucs’ new offensive coordinator, is not the only player that can provide insight on those Golden Bears. New Bucs linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson, a Cal alum, can also get some inside information.
Nickerson’s son, Hardy Nickerson, Jr., is Cal’s middle linebacker, and could give his father and the Bucs some scoop on work habits, personalities and playmaking ability of players like the 6-foot-2, 248-pound Fortt, who might be an interesting middle linebacker candidate in the later rounds. Fortt ran a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, has a 36-inch vertical and put up an impressive 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]
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