August 22, 2014

Washington Redskins training camp notebook

by Justin Byram

The Redskins kicked off training camp on a rainy Thursday morning at Bon Secours Training Camp. Here’s what you missed at the first day of training camp.

Robert Griffin III had a shaky start to camp, his throws were often inaccurate and off target. That could be due to the sloppy conditions he was throwing the ball in, rust, or maybe he just needs more time to get on the same page with his new targets. Regardless, it is not time to panic if you’re the Redskins, but Griffin must improve on his rocky start sooner than later in camp.

Running back will be an interesting position battle to watch throughout camp, Chris Thompson looked very quick, and appeared to be fully healthy. Seastrunk proved to be as advertised showing extreme burst and playmaking ability. Seastrunk also did a nice job catching the ball out of the backfield, I saw him make two difficult grabs (one low and one behind him). Catching the ball out of the backfield is a huge part of Jay Gruden’s offense and the quicker Seastrunk can pick it up the better it will be for him. Both Seastrunk and Thomas worked on returning punts as well.

Keenan Robinson has received a lot of hype this off-season, and rightfully so. The third year linebacker looked extremely athletic and showed great range covering the very talented Jordan Reed (typically a linebacker matchup nightmare) and did a phenomenal job. Robinson looks like he will be a huge asset to the Redskins defense provided he stays healthy.

Another recovering Redskin that looks healthier than I expected him to be was Richard Crawford Jr., who was playing his best football before getting injured last season, and could be an asset in the return game in 2014. Phillip Thomas also looked good, and doesn’t seem to have lost his explosiveness after missing his rookie season with a lisfranc injury.

In addition to returning punts, Andre Roberts made his presence felt immediately, making some nice plays in eleven-on-eleven drills. Roberts might be an underrated addition thanks to DeSean Jackson, but Roberts will be a bigger playmaker than people expect in 2014. Although their timing was off (it will get better with time) DeSean Jackson appears to be the deep threat RGIII has lacked his first two years. Twice today Jackson blew by the defense and Griffin went to him with no hesitation, one ball was a bit overthrown, and the other Jackson probably could have caught but it’s a safe bet you can expect a lot of deep shots from RGIII to Jackson in 2014.

Trent Murphy was put on the field with Orakpo and Kerrigan and formed a very good looking pass rushing trio. Murphy is enormous in person, bigger than I thought he would be and he looked great in his first practice with Washington. Murphy was reportedly one of the first Redskins to show up for camp around 6:30 a.m. (two hours before practice). With Murphy’s hard working attitude and talent, expect him to make an impact early.
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Justin Byram is a contributor to District Sports Page. He covers the Washington Redskins for several on-line publications. You can follow him on Twitter @Justin_Byram.

Predicting the Washington Redskins final 53-man roster

by Justin Byram

With the 2014 Washington Redskins training camp underway, we’ve decided to go out on a limb and predict the final opening day 53-man roster:

To kick off training camp, we are going to predict who makes the final cut for the Redskins’ 53-man roster. Have a question? Leave a comment!

Quarterback: 3

Robert Griffin III

Kirk Cousins

Colt McCoy

With RGIII healthy and Gruden’s tendency to only keep two quarterbacks it is tempting to cut McCoy, however, RGIII needs to prove his long term health before that happens.

Running Back: 4

Alfred Morris

Roy Helu

Lache Seastrunk

Darrel Young

This battle will go through camp and pre-season, but the bottom line is Seastunk is a more durable version of Chris Thompson and was drafted by Gruden giving him the edge.

Wide Receiver: 6

Pierre Garcon

DeSean Jackson

Andre Roberts

Santana Moss

Leonard Hankerson

Ryan Grant

The top three are a lock, but Gruden has stated he likes Moss and what he brings to the table, Leonard Hankerson may start the season on the PUP list but will make the team at one point or another, and Grant has impressed early and was another Gruden draft pick. (if Hankerson opens the season on the PUP look for Alderick Robinson to stick around a little longer)

Offensive Line: 9

Trent Williams

Shawn Lauvao

Kory Lichtensteiger

Chris Chester

Tyler Polumbus

Mike McGlynn

Spencer Long

Morgan Moses

Tom Compton

The starters are pretty set in stone unless one of the two rookies overcomes Chester or Polumbus (I don’t think that happens). The two rookies are locks to make the roster, they are the future of the right side of the line. McGlynn is a solid versatile backup, and Tom Compton is playing right tackle with the second team and looks much more pro-ready than Moses.

Tight End: 3

Jordan Reed

Logan Paulson

Niles Paul

This is a pretty easy group. Jordan Reed is a budding superstar, Paulson is the team’s best blocker and an underrated pass-catcher, and Niles Paul is a special teams ace and when your special teams is as bad as the Redskins’ was in 2013 you don’t cut a guy like that.

Defensive Line: 6

Jason Hatcher

Barry Cofield

Chris Baker

Jarvis Jenkins

Kedric Golston

Stephen Bowen

The starters are set in stone. Jarvis Jenkins is now over a year removed from knee surgery, and looking to make good on the potential he flashed as a rookie, Golston gives the Redskins versatility to play the nose and end position, and Bowen will make the team, but barely as a rotational player.

Inside Linebacker: 5

Perry Riley Jr.

Keenan robinson

Darryl Sharpton

Akeem Jordan

Adam Heyward

Back to the terrible special teams from 2013, the Redskins brought in three athletic inside linebackers who all excel in special teams, which is why Sharpton, Jordan, and Heyward all make the roster behind the starters Riley and Robinson.

Outside Linebacker: 4

Ryan Kerrigan

Brian Orakpo

Trent Murphy

Brandon Jenkins

This is one of the toughest decisions the Redskins will have to make this season. The top three are established, Rak and Kerrigan are two of the best players on the Redskins’ entire roster, and Murphy was the Redskins’ first draft pick and will have a chance to make an impact early. That leaves Rob Jackson and Brandon Jenkins fighting for the final roster spot. Outside Linbackers coach Brian Baker said that Jenkins might be the most improved this season, and the Redskins didn’t make an effort to re-sign Jackson early in free-agency so I’ll give the edge to Jenkins because he is younger with a higher ceiling.

Corner: 5

DeAngelo Hall

David Amerson

Tracy Porter

Bashaud Breeland

Richard Crawford Jr.

Richard Crawford looks healthy despite suffering a nasty knee injury during last pre-season. Crawford was playing his best football before the injury and is a solid special teams player which is why he gets the final spot behind the starters and fourth round pick Bashaud Breeland.

Safety: 5

Ryan Clark

Brandon Meriweather

Phillip Thomas

Bacarri Rambo

Akeem Davis

Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather are penciled in as starters, and Phillip Thomas will push Meriweather for playing time early, leaving two spots up for grabs. Bacarri Rambo will get one more chance to prove his potential and that he can improve upon his tackling. Akeem Davis is a great athlete that has turned heads at camp and will be kept around to challenge Rambo for playing time.

Specialist: 3

Kai Forbath

Robert Malone

Nick Sundberg

Zach Hocker will push Kai Forbath for the kicker position, and there is a small chance the Redskins could keep a field goal kicker and a kickoff specialist – but that’s not likely. Sundberg is now the only long snapper on the team so he’s a lock, and Malone has the edge at punter early but that is another competition that will last throughout camp.
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Justin Byram is a contributor to District Sports Page. He covers the Washington Redskins for several on-line publications. You can follow him on Twitter @Justin_Byram.

Washington Capitals add defenseman Matt Niskanen

From the press release:

The Washington Capitals have signed defenseman Matt Niskanen to a seven-year, $40.25 million contract, senior vice president and general manager Brian MacLellan announced today.

“We are very excited that Matt Niskanen has chosen to sign with Washington,” said MacLellan. “At 27 years of age, he is just entering his prime for a defenseman. We feel he will be a staple on our blueline for many years to come. We have stated all along that upgrading the defense was our top priority this offseason and we feel we accomplished our goal with our signings today.”

Niskanen, 27, set career highs in points (46), goals (10), assists (36), games played (81) and game-winning goals (6) in 2013-14, led all NHL defensemen in plus/minus (+33) and was named the team’s Defensive Player of the Year. He also recorded a career-high nine points (two goals, seven assists), led the team with six power play points and was first among team defensemen with 29 hits in 13 playoff games.

Washington Capitals add Orpik, Peters in free agent frenzy

On the first day of the NHL free agent signing period, the Washington Capitals address two major needs, adding veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and backup goalie Justin Peters. Orpik, 33 and two-time U.S. Olympian, signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract, while Peters inked a two-year, $1.9 million deal. Caps GM Brian MacLellan announced both deals.

From the press releases:

“We are very excited to welcome Brooks to Washington,” said MacLellan. “We feel Brooks’ leadership and experience will greatly enhance our defense for years to come. Brooks plays tough minutes against the opposition’s best players.”

-snip-

Orpik played in 72 games for the Penguins in 2013-14, earning 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) and 46 penalty minutes and ranked first on the team in blocked shots (143) and first among Pittsburgh defensemen in hits (221). Orpik was drafted by the Penguins in the first round, 18th overall, in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.

and…

We are pleased to sign Justin to a two-year contract,” said MacLellan. “We feel he is just entering his prime and has a tremendous upside. We look forward to him working with our goaltending coach Mitch Korn to reach his potential.”

Peters, 27, appeared in a career-high 21 games during the 2013-14 season, recording a 7-9-4 record with a 2.50 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. The Blyth, Ont., native also represented Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Championship. Peters has posted a 22-31-8 record with three shutouts, a 3.05 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage in 68 career NHL games with the Carolina Hurricanes.

In addition, the Caps re-signed forward Michael Latta, 23, to a two-year, $1.15 million contract.

Washington Mystics trim roster to 12

From the team’s press release:

Washington, D.C. – The Washington Mystics waived the following players: Cierra Bravard, Kirby Burkholder, Haley Peters and Rachel Tecca.  Washington will play their first preseason game of the 2014 season on May 6 in Indiana against the Fever. The roster currently stands at 12.

Nats Nightly Spring Training Edition: Carroll, C. Young cut; Moore & Mattheus to minors

Dave Nichols of District Sports Page and Patrick Reddington of SBNation’s Federal Baseball discussed the Washington Nationals most recent roster moves and how the roster seems to be taking shape for opening day.

Check Out Baseball Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with District Sports Page Nats Nightly on BlogTalkRadio

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview, Part II: The Outfield

Jayson Werth high-fives Bryce Harper after gunning out Greg Dobbs in the ninth inning. - Miami Marlins v. Washington Nationals, 9/7/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Health and self-preservation are key for the Nats outfield this season. (Stock photo Sept. 2012, Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

As a whole, the Washington Nationals return mostly intact from the teams that won 98 games in 2012 and 86 games in 2013. This is a veteran team with high aspirations of competing in the World Series. I hardly think rookie manager Matt Williams will boldly proclaim “World Series or Bust” as his predecessor did, but the implications are there.

If the team overachieved in ’12 and underachieved last season, what is the logical progression for 2014? If the ’12 and ‘13 results had been flipped, I think everyone would be riding the Nats as an odd-on favorite this season. They may be anyway.

With a rotation as solid No. 1 through No. 4 as any in baseball, a deep bullpen, an infield full of silver sluggers and a versatile outfield led by a burgeoning superstar, the Washington Nationals seem poised to make noise this season on a national level.

For the next two weeks, District Sports Page will preview the Washington Nationals 2014 season. This week, we’ll do profiles of the players on the 40-man roster and significant non-roster invitees, players that have a chance to make an impact on the Nats roster this season.

Here’s the schedule:

Monday: The Infield
Tuesday: The Outfield
Wednesday: The Catchers
Thursday: The Rotation
Friday: The Bullpen

In week two, we’ll profile the manager and front office, reveal our Top-25 minor leaguers and prospects, examine the “big picture” the Nats this season, and do a little statistical analysis and projecting.

Josie’s on a vacation far away…

THE OUTFIELD

Jayson Werth, RF: Werth was a stealth candidate for MVP last season, and actually ended up 13th on the postseason award ballot. The .318/.398/.532 line he posted at age 34 had everything to do with that. Werth enjoyed one of his finest seasons in the bigs, despite missing 33 games due to injury, which has to be expected from the guy at this point in his career. There’s no way he’ll every live up to the immense contract he signed to come to D.C., but when he’s been in the lineup the past two seasons he’s outdone what could have reasonably been expected of him. How long does that production continue? His defense is already slipping greatly and he has four more seasons to his contract, so it becomes an important question as Werth enters the twilight of his solid career.

Denard Span, CF: Trivia: He’s the only player in Major League history by the name of Denard. Or Span. Anyway, Span rescued his season with a torrid seven weeks at the end of the season, which was along the lines of what GM Mike Rizzo expected when he traded pitching prospect Alex Meyer to the Twins for him. Span bottomed out on Aug. 16 at .258/.310/.353, nowhere near what’s necessary in the top spot in the batting order. For the next 39 games, he hit .338/.375/.459, instrumental in the Nats late resurgence. It was too little, too late to save the Nats playoff aspirations, but the Nats have to get more near his career line (.283/.351/.387) on a more consistent basis to make this offense work.

Bryce Harper, LF: Bam Bam put up a .274/.368/.486 line his sophomore season at the age of 20. That’s at once hard to comprehend and easy to overlook. He’s doing remarkable things at such an early age. Unfortunately, he’s his own worst enemy right now with his “balls to the wall” approach at defense. At some point, self-preservation has to take hold. No manager or coach wants to tell Harper to slow down, but he needs to stay on the field – and healthy – to fulfill his promise. After crashing into the wall at Dodgers Stadium in May, he played all season on a knee that required surgery at the conclusion of the season, under the radar while many weren’t paying attention to baseball. He needs to figure out lefties (.214/.327/.321/ in 158 PAs) and breaking balls, but the talent is there. He just needs to stay on the field.

Nate McLouth, OF: Last season was the first time since 2009 McLouth played more than 90 games at the Major League level. His resurgence for the Orioles is nothing short of astounding, considering the trajectory his career was taking. In ’10 and ’11 with Atlanta he hit .190 and .228 with 10 homers combined. His first 34 games with Pittsburgh in ’12 were no better: .140/.210/.175, leading to his release. He rediscovered himself in Baltimore, hitting .26/.342/.435 and .258/.329/.399 the past two years. Now 32, McLouth will see plenty of at bats with the injury-prone Nats outfield and as a late inning pinch-hitter. By default, he becomes the leader of the Goon Squad.

Scott Hairston, Corner OF: Hairston is the right-handed hitting Ying to McLouth’s Yang. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work on paper. But Hairston’s overall numbers last year (.191/.237/.414) and age (34) – not to mention his paltry .214/.259/.484 against LHPs, who he’s supposed to “mash” – signal the end is rapidly approaching the once versatile and useful player. It’s true, all 10 of Hairston’s homers last season came against lefties, but as his slash line indicates, it was literally all or nothing for Hairston. 10 of his 27 hits in 140 plate appearances against LHPs were home runs. Against righties? .097/.147/.276. Can this actually be the Nats primary right-handed bat off the bench? With a walk rate of 5 percent and contact rate of 72 percent, this a guy whose skills aren’t declining, they’ve just about evaporated.

Jeff Kobernus, Corner OF: Kobernus made his MLB debut last year at the age of 25, past prospect status. His tryout lasted 36 PAs and resulted in a .167/.306/.267 slash as he played all three outfield positions. Small sample caveats abound, as the converted second baseman held his own in Syracuse, hitting .318/.366/.388, all minor league career highs. You like to see a player whose numbers rise as he goes up the ladder. He’s had 40+ steals each of the past three seasons in the minors and folks love his work ethic. But there’s not a lot of room in the bigs for a right-handed hitting speedster without obvious elite skills and no pop, especially in the outfield.

Eury Perez, CF: Did you see the last sentence I wrote about Kobernus? It applies even more toward Perez. His stolen base numbers have plummeted as he’s risen through the ranks, from 64 to 51 to 23. He’s always made good contact, as his lifetime .305 average will attest to. But there’s no power, less willingness to walk, and he’s only an average defender despite his speed – though he has a decent arm. Perez is destined for pinch runner/Quad-A status.

Steven Souza, Corner OF: Souza was a third round pick in 2007 out of high school, so he’s been in the system for-e-ver, toiling first in anonymity, then infamously due to his PED suspension in 2010. But Souza has blossomed a little bit the past two seasons and put himself back on the radar of the big club. He has an interesting pop/speed combo (15 homers, 20 SBs in 323 PAs for Harrisburg in ’13) with good plate discipline (.396 OBP) and had a nice appearance in the Arizona Fall League in October. The 25-year-old could have a chance to impact the big roster yet.

Brian Goodwin, CF: Goodwin is the heir apparent to the center field position at Nats Park. The 34th overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft, Goodwin has an impressive arsenal of tools. He possess elite plate discipline, something that might actually hurt his counting numbers in the minor leagues, as he simply won’t expand his strike zone for inferior pitchers. When he does swing, he has a nice blend of pop to go along with squaring up on the ball. Goodwin is a fine defender in center, though his arm isn’t the greatest, and he’s still learning to use his speed on the bases (just 19 of 30 last season). He struggled at the start of last season in Double-A, but picked up as the season went on. There’s plenty of time for the 23-year old as Span plays in his walk year this season (barring Nats picking up Span’s $9M option for ’15).

Michael Taylor, OF: Scouts have been drooling over Taylor’s athleticism since being drafted in the sixth round of the ’09 draft. Unfortunately for Taylor, he’s never really been able to translate all that athletic ability into production on the baseball field. He’s still young (23 in March), so he’s got time to “put it together”, but in over 1600 minor league at bats, Taylor owns a .249/.319/.399 slash. He repeated High-A last season and tore it up on the base paths (51 of 60 on steals) and his slash went up a little bit across the board. Double-A this year will tell the story of whether he’s a baseball player or athlete.

REPORT: Wizards trade Okafor & pick to Suns for Marcin Gortat

According to multiple sources, the Washington Wizards on Friday traded Emeka Okafor and a protected 2014 first round draft pick to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for center Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall and Malcolm Lee. According to The Washington Post, the team expects to release Brown, Marshall and Lee.

“We have solidified our frontcourt by adding a player who has established himself as a very consistent and productive inside presence over the last three seasons,” Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld said via press release.  “Marcin’s ability to rebound, defend and score will allow us to continue where we left off last season and pushes us further toward our goal of becoming a playoff team.”

Gortat, 6’11″, 240, averaged 11.1 points and 8.5 rebounds last season for the Suns. He missed the last 21 games of the season with a right foot injury, though he did play summer ball in his native Poland. Gortat is in the last year of a contract that will pay him $7.7 million this season.

Okafor has missed the Wizards training camp with a herniated disk in his neck and it’s still to be determined when he can resume basketball activities. He averaged 9.7 points and 8.8 rebounds last season in 79 games. Okafor is in the final year of his $14.5 million per season deal.

The 2014 first round pick is protected through the No. 12 overall selection.

This move further signifies the Wizards insistence on making the playoffs this season, though it hardly ensures anything beyond this year. The team is unlikely to re-sign Gortat short of an All-Star campaign, and they surrender a high pick in what should be a very deep draft class next year. GM Ernie Grunfeld has made every move this off-season with an eye toward the post-season, and the revenue that is associated with that distinction, even if those moves aren’t necessarily long-term in thinking.

Oates shakes up Caps forward lines; Wilson staying in D.C.

It was kind of a busy media day at Kettler for the Washington Capitals Friday, as Adam Oates changed up his forward lines quite a bit and announced that F Tom Wilson will stay with the Caps all season.

Wilson, 19 and earning just 6:41 per game, could have been returned to his Juniors team without counting against his contract up until his tenth game of the season. But GM Geprge McPhee and Oates both reiterated that Wilson would stay in D.C. for the long-term. Wilson is not eligible to play in the AHL this season due to some quirky age and draft restrictions.

As for the forward lines, in an effort to try to add offense to the second line, Oates moved Martin Erat up to the left wing spot there, sliding Brooks Laich to center with Troy Brouwer keeping his familiar spot. He then dropped Mikhail Grabovski to center the third line with wingers Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. The fourth line had Jay Beagle centering Aaron Volpatti on the left and Wilson and Eric Fehr slotted at right wing.

Some of the changes make a lot of sense, and some others remain head-scratchers. After keeping the forward lines intact the first seven games of the season — with decidedly mixed results — Oates’ tinkering here is not insignificant. Caps fans are used to constant line shuffling, as previous coach Bruce Boudreau, and even Dale Hunter to an extent, fiddled with the line combinations on a regular — even nightly — basis.

For my money, the Caps best line this season to this point was the third line, with Fehr between Chimera and Ward. That group has had the best puck possession numbers of any of the groups of forwards. Fehr, a natural scoring winger, has been doing a credible job in the faceoff dot, but to me the experiment to line him up in a pivot position was always a reach — essentially, the Caps were trying to shoehorn him into a spot in order to increase his flexibility in order to justify keeping him over Matthieu Perreault.

Where I don’t see Fehr is on the right wing on the fourth line. Granted, Wilson isn’t getting a ton of ice time yet this season, but that kinda has to be his spot to justify the Caps decision to keep him with the big club and not let him play full minutes every night in Juniors.

Also, it seems to be a bit of a waste to move Grabovski down between Chimera and Ward, two players not particularly gifted skills-wise. Granted, Grabovski puts up good possession numbers and this line should be able to generate some chances due to that, but it will certainly limit Grabovski’s ability to be more creative with the puck — not that he was having a whole lot of success in that area between Laich and Brouwer.

I really do prefer Laich at the center position, but I’d like to see him at the pivot on the third line with fellow grinders Chimera and Ward, especially since Laich sees a lot of penalty kill time with Ward. But the Caps made a huge investment in Laich and have maintained that he is a Top-6 forward and can center the second line, so it appears we’re going to see that combo, at least for the time being.

Of course, none of these changes affect the top line, where Marcus Johansson has been a passenger all season. He’s contributed a meager three shots on goal in seven contests and is routinely being run off puck in all three zones. Johansson is not small (listed at 6’1″, 205) but plays much smaller than his actual stature.

His best asset is his skating ability, but he rarely puts himself into position to fully utilize his skills. And on the rare occasions that he is in the right place at the right time, he usually passes up the shot in deference to his two senior linemates.

The Caps play Saturday night against Columbus in the last of a five-game homestand before heading out on a Western Canada swing next week that will see them through Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver before heading back to the Atlantic Coast to play Metro Division foe Philadelphia before coming back home. It will be an arduous road trip and it could very well tell us exactly what type of team the Caps are going to be this season.

Washington Capitals place D Tomas Kundratek on waivers

The Washington Capitals reportedly placed right-handed defenseman Tomas Kundratek on waivers Wednesday, with the plans to send him to Hershey if he clears waivers. The rest of the league has until Thursday at noon to make a claim.

Kundratek’s removal from the roster removes his $550,000 salary cap hit, giving the Caps a little more room under the cap with which to maneuver.

The move could be a pre-cursor to the team keeping Tom Wilson, the 19-year-old winger that has made a terrific impression in camp. He is not eligible to play in the AHL this season, so if he doesn’t make the Caps, he’d have to be returned to his junior team. Coach Adam Oates has made several comments that he’d like to have Wilson’s size and presence on the fourth line this season and that he’s already outgrown major Juniors, calling him a man among boys at that level.

The Caps top two defense pairing seem set, with veterans Karl Alzner and Mike Green as the top pair and John Erskine and John Carlson the second duo. The Caps then have several candidates to fill the bottom pair.

Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy finished last season as that third pairing, but Kundratek’s overall game seemed to be a good fit to stick around as the seventh defenseman or eventually step in for Oleksy.

Then there’s Dmitry Orlov, who at one time seemed destined for top-four minutes. A series of injuries, including a concussion that saw him miss over three months last season, derailed those plans.

In Adam Oates’ pregame comments before the team takes on Nashville Wednesday night at Verizon Center, he said that Kundratek is “a good hockey player. If he gets picked up [on waivers], I hope he does well. If he doesn’t, I hope we see him again.”

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