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Arizona Cardinals

Key Additions: RB Edgerrin James (Colts), OG Milford Brown (Texans), QB Matt Leinhart (USC) and DT Kendrick Clancy (Giants)

Key Losses: QB Josh McCown (Lions), S Quentin Harris (Giants), and DT Russell Davis (Seahawks)

Offensive Outlook

The Cardinals offense ranked eighth overall last season, but managed this despite having the worst rushing production in the league. Marcel Shipp and last year’s second round pick JJ Arrington battled injuries all year and due to this, along with injuries along the offensive line forcing eight different starting units, consistency was almost impossible to be found. The Cardinals have since added perennial Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James, who along with the already potent passing game should produce one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL.

Last year head coach Dennis Green played musical chairs at the quarterback position, but with Josh McCown now out and Matt Leinhart in, I have to believe his hope for the upcoming season is for starter Kurt Warner to remain in the starting lineup while also tutoring the rookie on the ins and outs of the pro game. If Warner were to go down Green would likely look to Leinart, but if this team is truly going to make a run at the playoffs Warner will have to remain healthy for the bulk of the season.

If Leinart would be forced into action he’ll certainly have some of the best young weapons in the NFL at his disposal. We all know what Edge brings to the table, but the receiving duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin will also be very important to the team’s success in ’06. Both amassed over 100 catches and 1,400 yards last season, but it’s been consistency at the tight end position that has plagued this offense in recent years. With the addition of third round pick Leonard Pope the Cardinals feel they have addressed this problem, and at 6’8″ should give them the red zone target that they’ve lacked (Cardinals ranked last in the league in red zone offense last year).

The passing game was able to thrive despite an inconsistent running game, but if this team expects to make the playoffs consistency on the ground will be a must. The addition of James is no doubt a great one, but if consistency is going to be achieved it has to start with an offensive line that has thoroughly underachieved in the Green regime. The entire offensive line returns from last season, but is this really a good thing? In the draft the Cards added OG Deuce Lutui to compete for the starting left guard position. They also signed Milford Brown to compete for the right guard position, and he is currently slated to start in that spot. The key to this unit will be for Green to name five starters before the beginning of the season and let them work together in order to gain a comfort and consistency desperately needed for a line to be successful. He’s struggled with this the past two seasons having already gone through three coaches at the position, but now has Steve Loney filling the job, his line coach from his days in Minnesota.

Defensive Outlook

Surprisingly enough Arizona was the only team in the NFL last year to rank in the top ten in both total offense and defense. In fact both units were ranked eighth overall. On defense they were able to accomplish this despite losing four of their top six defensive linemen to season ending injuries. The Cardinals return all 11 starters from that eighth ranked unit, and the experience and slight addition of depth should lead to another productive season.

Bertrand Berry returns to the starting lineup after missing the final eight games of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. He is one of the best defensive linemen at getting to the quarterback, and teamed with left end Chike Okeafor should make up one of the most productive tandems in the NFL. On the inside Darnell Dockett will start along side newly acquired Kendrick Clancy, and both will welcome the return of Berry, which should reduce the amount of double teams they’ll see this season. The Cardinals lost starter Russell Davis to the Seahawks, but addressed this by signing Clancy as well as drafting Gabe Watson and Jonathon Lewis. Watson has the talent of a first rounder, but fell to the fourth due to his tendency to take off plays at Michigan.

At linebacker, after strong side starter Karlos Dansby, the talent is pretty thin and this may in fact be one of the weaker units in league. Dansby, however, is very good and has shown the potential and versatility to be one of the best in the NFL. Gerald Hayes returns from injury last season in the hopes to regain his starting spot in the middle, and Orlando Huff rounds out this unit on the weak side. The starting spots in the middle and on the weak side are by no means set in stone, but no one on the current roster has the ability to really come in and significantly upgrade the position.

In the secondary all four starters return led by last year’s first round pick Antrel Rolle. Rolle missed several games last season due to a knee injury, but is now fully healed and should become one of the more physical corners in the league due to his experience at safety in college. At the other corner David Macklin returns as well as Eric Green at the nickel position. Neither are world-beaters, but both are good enough to retain their starting positions due to lackluster depth behind them. Adrian Wilson will again start at strong safety looking to build on his eight sacks from a season ago. Free safety Robert Griffith is aging, but due to his experience and knowledge of the system (played in Minnesota under Green) he is undoubtedly one of the leaders on this defense.

Overall Outlook

It’s just amazing to me that a team can have both the eighth ranked offense and defense, but still only manage six wins in a season. A stat like that really shows how important having a consistent running game is in this league. The Cardinals hope to have addressed this with the addition of Edgerrin James, but inconsistency and lack of effort and talent along the offensive line will still haunt their effort of fully improving the glaring deficiencies they’ve struggled through the past two seasons. The defense should quietly remain one of the league’s best statistically, but issues with depth will continue to prevent this unit from becoming one of the league’s elite. Opening a new stadium should also improve attendance at home games, and if Kurt Warner can remain healthy a return to the playoffs is very possible. If Warner goes down, however, it could turn ugly quickly especially after Leinart’s holdout forced him to miss over two weeks of training camp. This team is real close to looking like a playoff team, but due to question marks on the offensive line and the defense’s inability to produce turnovers, they look like a team that may still be one year away. Prediction: 9-7

Fantasy Outlook

Kurt Warner obviously has the weapons to put up top ten numbers at the quarterback position, but injury concerns and a shaky offensive line will likely prevent him from achieving these statistics. When healthy he still remains a nice option as your starter, but handcuffing him with Leinart is not something I’m sure I can recommend. Boldin and Fitzgerald are solid options as your number one receiver (and great options at number two), and are both worth the risk they may become if Warner goes down. Look for both to be gone by the third round due to last season’s stats. Edgerrin’s yardage (rushing and receiving) should remain in the league’s top five to eight, but due to the Cardinals struggles in the red zone his touchdown numbers should see a decrease (14 last year). Due to his yardage, however, he still remains worthy of a first round selection. Leonard Pope should put up receiving numbers worthy of a weekly start, and in fact has the ability to be one of the leaders at the position in finding the end zone. Due to the defenses ability to get to the quarterback, and likely improvement at creating turnovers (assuming Rolle stays healthy) they are certainly worthy of starting on a week-to-week basis. Games against the 49ers (2), Bears, Detroit, and San Diego also make them an attractive unit. Also, don’t forget about kicker Neil Rackers, who if the Cardinals red zone woes continue, will again be one of fantasy’s best.

St. Louis Rams

Key Additions: Corey Chavous (SS), Fakhir Brown (CB), La’Roi Glover (DT), Will Witherspoon (LB), Tony Fisher (RB), Gus Frerotte (QB), Tye Hill (CB), Joe Klopfensten (TE), Dominque Byrd (TE), Claude Wroten (DT)

Key Losses: Marshall Faulk (RB), Adam Archuleta (SS), Damione Lewis (DT), Mike Furrey (FS), Corey Ivy (DB), Chris Johnson (DB), Ryan Pickett (DT)

Offensive Outlook

The Mike Martz era is officially over now in St. Louis making way for the Scott Linehan era to begin. Linehan, who comes over after four years of experience as an offensive coordinator in Minnesota and Miami, should take a more balanced offensive approach than the more pass happy Rams offense under Martz.

Marc Bulger returns as the starting quarterback after missing eight games last season because of a shoulder injury. He is a very accurate quarterback and due to the offenses expected switch to a more intermediate passing game, his likeliness to avoid injury should increase. Gus Frerotte was brought in to back up Bulger and his experience gives the Rams a more proven and reliable option if Bulger were to go down.

Steven Jackson had a productive season a year ago, but will be looking to improve upon those numbers in his second season as the starter. With Marshall Faulk now having to sit out the year with issues in both his knees, Jackson’s receptions and carries will undoubtedly increase in ’06. Jackson is one of the most versatile running backs in the league, but he will have to improve his blocking skills in order to be viewed as one of the league’s elite. Tony Fisher was brought in from Green Bay to fill the role left by Faulk, and Moe Williams, who Linehan coached in Minnesota, was also brought in to likely serve as a short yardage and goal line back.

At receiver the Rams may very well be the deepest team in the league led by Torry Holt, who in my opinion is the league’s best. Holt’s route running ability is second to none making him a legitimate option in both the possession and deep threat roles. Holt is the only receiver to have had 6 straight 1,300 yard receiving seasons, and despite missing two games to injury last year still amassed over 100 catches (102). Isaac Bruce returns as the number two receiver, but due to slowing down because of age may have a hard time holding off the younger and faster receivers on the current roster. Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald both saw significant action last season and along with Dane Looker (who also doubles up as the team’s holder) make up the deepest group in the NFL.

The tight end position should see a significant increase in involvement in the offense due to head coach Scott Linehan’s insistence on using the position heavily in his game plan. To reflect this Linehan drafted two in Joe Klopfensten and Dominque Byrd, and both will battle for the starting job in the offense. He brought Alex Holmes over with him from Miami, and along with Jerome Collins and Aaron Walker gives the Rams above average depth at the position.

The offensive line should continue to improve and currently has one of the best tackle duos in the league with Orlando Pace and last year’s first round pick, Alex Barron. Andy McCollum and Adam Timmerman are very capable in the interior, but both are starting to show a decline due to aging (35 and 36) and both had off-season surgery. The roster does, however, have above average depth if either of them were to go down.

Defensive Outlook

Jim Haslett comes over from New Orleans to coach a defense that was one of the league’s worst in ’06 (30th overall). Several personnel changes were made in the off season that should lead to the significant improvement of the unit.

On the defensive line they brought in the aging, but still productive, La’Roi Glover who still finds ways to penetrate and disrupt against both the running and passing games. With Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis gone, Jimmy Kennedy now moves in to a starting role and pledges to be revitalized following the departure of the old regime. Jason Fisk and rookie Claude Wroten provide adequate depth on the interior and both should see significant action throughout the season. On the ends Leonard Little and Anthony Hargrove will be the starters, and both are above average in pressuring the passer but struggle mightily at times against the run.

The acquisition of middle linebacker Will Witherspoon in free agency should help mask the ends’ deficiency against the run, and along with weak side backer Pisa Tinoisamoa should spearhead the improvement of this unit in that facet of the game. The starter on the strong side is still up for grabs, but at this point it seems like Brandon Chillar’s job to lose. The depth here is promising starting with free agent acquisition Raonall Smith (who will compete with Chillar for the starting spot on the strong side) and long time veteran Dexter Coakley there to help tutor the young unit.

In the secondary the Rams received possibly their biggest overhaul and out are Archuleta, Furrey, Ivy and Johnson and in are Chavous, Brown and first round pick Tye Hill. Chavous has better cover skills than Archuleta (and overall knowledge of the game) and at this point is the only clear-cut starter named among the group. Last year’s third round pick, OJ Atogwe, will likely enter the season as the starter at free safety but due to inexperience in no way gives the Rams a solid option alongside Chavous. At corner St. Louis brought in Fakhir Brown and drafted Tye Hill to both challenge Travis Fisher, Ronald Bartell and Jerametrius Butler for two starting positions. Butler is probably the best of the group, but coming off a season ending knee injury makes him no lock to get the starting nod. Brown will likely get the nod at the other corner, but the Rams best option may be to get the speedy Hill out there to learn the ropes in his rookie season.

Overall Outlook

The offense should remain one of the league’s best with Bulger, Jackson and Holt along with Linehan’s desire to bring a more balanced attack in ’06. The defense, however, remains a concern and I’m not sure the additions and changes made will all the sudden result in the complete turnaround of the unit. Chavous, Glover and Witherspoon will certainly add more consistency, but lack of talent and experience at other positions will certainly shine through (in an obvious bad way) in most of their games. Their offense and added consistency should result in an improvement upon last season’s six wins, but if it will result in a playoff appearance remains to be seen. Prediction: 9-7

Fantasy Outlook

Bulger, when healthy, is one of the best options in fantasy due to weapons he has at his disposal along with his pinpoint accuracy. He usually falls on draft day and due to his stats from last season (missed eight games) he’ll likely do so again this year. Make no mistake he’s worthy of an every week start, and in a sixteen game season should be a top give player at the position (despite Linehan’s promise to be more balanced). Be sure to grab Frerotte as well if the opportunity presents itself. Holt is a no brainer in the second round given his consistency, but where to take Bruce, McDonald and Curtis remains a mystery. The fact that all three should be drafted, however, is no mystery. Take Bruce sometime after the middle of the draft, the other two anytime after that. The tight end position will no doubt have an impact in this offense as well, but what is in doubt is which rookie it will be. Byrd and Klopfensten are worthy of using a draft pick on, but which to choose is yet to be determined. The defense will likely again struggle in creating turnovers, but Haslett will blitz early and often which may result in either sacks or interceptions. I’d take a wait and see approach with this unit, as it’s highly likely they won’t be drafted on draft day. Special teams have struggled since Hakim departed, and the new regime has made no significant additions to change that.

San Francisco 49ers

Key Additions: Vernon Davis (TE), Trent Dilfer (QB), Antonio Bryant (WR), Bryan Gilmore (WR), Larry Allen (OL), Manny Lawson (DL), Walt Harris (DS), Sammy Davis (CB)

Key Losses: Brandon Lloyd (WR), Fred Beasley (FB), Andre Carter (DE), Julian Peterson (LB), Ken Dorsey (QB), Johnnie Morton (WR), Ahmed Plummer (CB)

Offensive Outlook

The 49ers were by far one of the worst offenses in the NFL last season (32nd), and in fact were so bad that they became only the third offense in league history to be outgained by 2,000 yards on the season. Second year head coach Mike Nolan has brought in Norv Turner to take over as the offensive coordinator, a position Turner has been successful in in the NFL. Turner will attempt to implement his offensive approach of a power running game, but second year quarterback Alex Smith having to learn another new offense may, in the end, stunt his growth at the position this season. Trent Dilfer was brought in to help tutor the young quarterback, and to replace him if the frustration in the new system begins to mount.

In an attempt to implement this power running game it’s likely Frank Gore will officially supplant Kevan Barlow as the starting running back in San Fran, but it’s yet to be seen if either can hold up to the beating of a sixteen game season. Both have been injury prone in the past, but the 49ers have little to nothing behind them in the way of big back. Michael Robinson was drafted to challenge Terry Jackson as the third down back and will likely win the role due to his impressive upside, but if the coaching staff feels he’s more needed at receiver then Jackson may be able to stick around.

Brandon Lloyd is out and Antonio Bryant is in as the number one receiver, but neither are ideal options in bringing along a young quarterback. Lloyd was by far the 49ers best receiver last season and his trading to Washington remains a mystery to me. Bryant’s signing is a mystery as well due to his penchant for dropping balls and inconsistent route running route ability. Hardly the receiver I would bring in to help build the confidence of my young franchise quarterback. Arnaz Battle is a nice possession receiver, but on most teams would be a number three receiver at best. The rest of the receivers on the roster, with the exception of rookie Brandon Williams, are far below average, and most wouldn’t be on any other roster in the NFL.

At tight end, however, San Fran seems to be in good hands with two of the better options in the league. Eric Johnson, when healthy, is one of the better players at the position in the league, and the 49ers also used one of their first round picks on Vernon Davis. Davis, thought by many to be the best tight end in the draft, has unbelievable speed for his size and should provide Alex Smith with a reliable target in the passing game. Neither are great blockers, but due to the team’s lack of talent at receiver should both be on the field for the majority of the offensive snaps.

On the offensive line Larry Allen was brought in to anchor this young unit, and even though he is getting up there in age, is still an above average player and by far the best this team possesses. The other four spots along the line present major questions and going in to camp it is uncertain who will start where. Jeremy Newberry is also an above average player at center, but due to off season knee surgery may not be ready to contribute at all in ’06. Jonas Jennings returns to the left tackle position following missing most of last season with a shoulder injury, but he too remains a mystery due to last season’s injury. If Jennings can return to his form of the 2004 season and Larry Allen can remain healthy then the left side of the line could become a nice starting point in the team’s transition to a power running attack. The rest of the line, however, remains a big mystery.

Defensive Outlook

The fact that the team was outgained by more than 2,000 yards last season had something to do with the poor offense, but it also had a lot to do with the pitiful defense as well (32nd in the league). This resulted in the 49ers becoming only the fourth team in league history to finish dead last in both total offense and defense. After an off season that saw them lose the services of Andre Carter and Julian Peterson, the two best players on that side of the ball, it’s highly unlikely you’ll see much of an improvement in this unit in ’06.

Bryant Young is by far their best player on the defensive line, but he’s entering his 13th season and already has shown signs of slowing a bit. Marques Douglas was brought over from Baltimore a year ago (where he played under Nolan) and is a solid starter at the other end position. Anthony Adams will likely again start at the nose tackle position, and behind them is next to nothing by way of depth. Isaac Sopoaga is a decent option as a back up nose tackle, but the rest of the bench is made up of a fifth round pick (Fields), a sixth round pick (Oliver) and a slew of undrafted free agents.

Jeff Ulbrich and Derek Smith return to start at both inside linebacker postions, and both are solid options and should again lead the defense in tackles. Julian Peterson is out and Manny Lawson is in on the weak side, and the 49ers are counting on him to be a quick study and to produce heavily in his rookie season. Lawson should have no trouble making an immediate impact in getting to the quarterback, but in the other facets of the game will likely struggle do to the fact that he’s moving to linebacker from the defensive end position. The fourth starter will likely be Brandon Moore and provides the unit with consistency at the strong side. Again the depth is menial here, and an injury to any of the four starters would likely be catastrophic.

The 49ers had the worst secondary in the NFL last season and should be counted on to again be at the bottom of the league in pass defense in ’06 due to the team’s significant lack of talent at the position. Some young and promising talent is there to be molded, but none of it can be counted on to contribute in a big way this soon in their careers.

Overall Outlook

To significantly improve this team needed to make a big splash in free agency as well as have one of the better drafts in the league. They really failed at accomplishing either of those in the off season, which will likely result in another long season by the bay. Vernon Davis, Manny Lawson and Michael Robinson should have their moments in their rookie seasons, but the inconsistently they’ll likely also struggle through will be magnified due to the lack of quality throughout this roster. The 49ers will probably be a better team in the ’06 season, but I have no reason to believe they still won’t overall be one of the league’s worst. Prediction: 4-12

Fantasy Outlook

You’re kidding right? Well seriously, as bad as this roster is, however, there are a few players you should consider when drafting your fantasy team this year. At tight end both Eric Johnson and Vernon Davis are worthy of a draft pick, and due to a new system, below average receivers and a young quarterback could both warrant starting on a weekly basis. Davis will likely go earlier than Johnson, but if Johnson can stay healthy he could have just as productive a season. Take Davis in the middle of the draft, and watch Johnson fall to the bottom rounds before taking him. Barlow and Gore may become decent bye week starters, but neither is worthy of starting on a week-to-week basis. Bryant and Battle are each third receivers at best, but at the end of the draft it’s likely better and more intriguing options will be there. At this point I can’t see any reason to draft or use this defense at any point in the season.

Seattle Seahawks

Key Additions: Nate Burleson (WR), Julian Peterson (LB), Russell Davis (DT), Kelly Jennings (CB), Tom Ashworth (OT), Darryl Tapp (DE)

Key Losses: Steve Hutchinson (OG), Andre Dyson (CB), Joe Jurevicius (WR), Marquand Manuel (FS), Ryan Hannam (TE)

Offensive Outlook

Seattle ranked second in the NFL last season in total offense and looks poised to again finish in the top five offensively in ’06. They did lose Steve Hutchinson and Joe Jurevicius in free agency, but the signing of Nate Burleson and likely emergence of Pork Chop Womack should balance those losses quite nicely. An offensive line that returns two Pro Bowlers, icluding one of the best left tackles in the NFL Walter Jones, should not be nearly as dominant as it was with Hutchinson, but should nonetheless remain one of the league’s best units.

The offense is in great hands with starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who emerged last season as the NFC’s best quarterback (with McNabb injured). His accuracy continues to improve (he completed %80 of his passes over the Hawks final 3.5 games) and he should have an even better year statistically assuming Darrell Jackson can remain healthy as the number one receiver. Seneca Wallace has impressed in minimal spot duty, but due to his inexperience this team could head south quickly following an injury to Hasselbeck.

At running back the Seahawks possess one of the league’s best in Shaun Alexander, who last year became the only player in the NFL to score at least 15 touchdowns in 5 straight years, and hasn’t missed a game in 6 seasons. He was rushing for the long-term contract he received this off season, but Alexander seems to be a high enough character guy not to let that slow his production in ’06. Seattle also resigned Maurice Morris to remain Alexander’s back up, and he has become a solid option to spell Alexander when needed.

With the addition of Burleson and the health of Darrell Jackson this receiving corps should become one of the more productive units in the league. Alongside Jackson in the starting lineup will likely be 11-year veteran Bobby Engram who stepped up in a big way last season in Jackson’s absence despite dealing with injuries of his own. Rounding out this unit is third year receiver DJ Hackett and the recently resigned Peter Warrick. At tight end Jerramy Stevens returns after a career year in ’05, but has battled a knee injury early in training camp. Itula Mili returns after missing most of ’05 with an abdominal injury, but should be able to fill in respectively if Stevens is forced to miss any time.

Defensive Outlook

This unit rose from the bottom of the league in total defense (26th) in ’04 to the middle of the pack last season (16th), and looks poised to continue that improvement this season. With the addition of Julian Peterson to an already solid linebacking corps that includes second year sensation Lofa Tatupa and fellow second year performer Leroy Hill. Both continued to improve at an accelerated rate in their rookie seasons, and now with Peterson, become on the best starting groups in the league. The depth isn’t chopped liver either and includes Kevin Bentley, Niko Koutouvides, DD Lewis Isaiah Kacyvenski. All of which have the versatility and ability to produce in spot duty.

The defensive line lacks the superstar talent, but all were consistent enough a year ago to allow the defense to become the fifth best unit against the run. Three of the four starters return (Wistrom, Tubbs, Fisher) and the fourth starter will come by way of Russell Davis who was signed in the off season from Arizona. The Seahawks use a heavy rotation of four tackles to keep the position fresh, which shows the level of depth they possess at that position. At defensive end, however, the cupboard isn’t nearly as full and if anything were to happen to Fisher or Winstrom it’s likely second round pick Darryl Tapp will be called on to start. Tapp is a nice third option at end, but may not be ready mentally or physically to be counted on as an every down player in the NFL just yet.

The secondary may be the weakest link on the defense, but nonetheless is still a very solid group with serious potential at every position. Marcus Trufant returns to start at one of the corners, but last year’s other starter Andre Dyson was released by the team in the off season. Battling to start there will likely be the incumbent Kelly Herndon and this year’s first round pick Kelly Jennings. The loser will become the team’s nickel back. At free safety Ken Hamlin returns from a serious head injury, but if he isn’t ready the Seahawks acquired Mike Green via trade from the Bears. Finally the starter at strong safety will be Michael Boulware who has come along nicely in his first two seasons in the league since his move from linebacker. The starting four as I said are pretty solid, but the depth beyond Green is quite suspect.

Overall Outlook

The Seahawks are attempting to become the first Super Bowl loser in five years to successfully return to the playoffs in the season following that loss. I see no real reason they should not break this trend in ’06, as well as make a serious run at a return to the Super Bowl. Injuries at quarterback and a couple other positions would be devastating, but most teams in the NFL suffer from that problem. They again have an easy schedule, despite the improvements of every other team in their division, and will likely win enough games to again claim home field advantage through out the playoffs in the NFC. A home field this team is nearly unbeatable in. Prediction: 11-5

Fantasy Outlook

There is a lot to like here and it all starts with the league’s reigning MVP. There are a couple question marks regarding him though, given he no longer may feel he needs to prove himself now that he’s been given his long term deal and there is always the Madden cover thing. Neither would stop me from picking him any later than fourth overall, and he still should get serious consideration as the top overall pick. Hasselbeck’s numbers should be slightly better than they were a year ago (3,459 yards and 24 touchdowns), making him a solid option as your starter on a week-to-week basis. All three of their top receivers should be drafted with Jackson going as early as the third round, and Burleson and Engram in the middle to latter rounds. Stevens should also be a weekly starter at tight end and should have top ten stats at the position. Be weary of his knee issues, however, and don’t select him to soon. Mili should not be drafted, but if Stevens’ injury issues surface, should definitely be considered during the season. The defense was able to make big plays last season and I see no reason for them to drop off at all in that. Peter Warrick will likely return punts making their special teams a consideration as well.

Thursday I’ll have my preview of the AFC NorthâÂ?¦

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