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Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: New Orleans Saints

drew-brees-sean-payton-saints-7b0eb0f96d81cbae_large Getty Images

The Saints are in an interesting position.

There might not be a team in the NFL as good as the thing they do than the Saints are at throwing the football.

The combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees continue to be one of the best coach-quarterback pairings, and now that the contract unpleasantness with tight end* Jimmy Graham is over, their offensive weapons are in place, mostly intact from last year.

But where does that get them?

When the top teams in the NFC are playing power football, can the Saints push beyond big fantasy stats with finesse?

They benefit by being different from the teams that topped the conference last year (the Panthers likewise want to play physically), but this year will be a test to see if that difference is meaningful.

Brees is still at the top of his game, but that might not be enough any more.

Strengths.

Did we mention Drew Brees was good at throwing the ball?

He threw for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions last year.

And with Graham paid, they still have an impressive array of targets.

Marques Colston is still producing at a high level, and even with a change in the backfield (more on that in a moment), they’re going to be able to move the ball.

Payton is tremendous at the chess match of offense, and incorporating some new guys into the scheme will allow them to develop that capability.

Adding first-round speedster Brandin Cooks should more than make up for the departure of Lance Moore, especially with Kenny Stills developing into a more dependable target.

Weaknesses.

Last year, the Saints’ defense might have been better than their offense, or perhaps it was just by contrast to the year before.

Rob Ryan transformed a group that set a league record for yards allowed in 2012, and it’s not as if they had a gigantic personnel upgrade.

Ryan was patching together parts, and injuries didn’t help.

But Junior Galette emerged as a legitimate outside linebacker option, and defensive end Cameron Jordan had a breakout year with 12.5 sacks.

The offseason’s big acquisition, safety Jairus Byrd, ought to be able to make a big impact, paired alongside Kenny Vaccaro. That enthusiasm was dampened a bit when Byrd needed back surgery, knocking him out of most of the offseason work.

The only problem is, the Saints still might not have sufficient personnel on that side of the ball, so regression is a real possibility.

They finally pared away some of the old parts on defense (cutting Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer), which might have been necessary.

But other than bringing in last-legs cornerback Champ Bailey, there wasn’t the kind of influx of talent they might have needed.

They improved last year based largely on energy and emotion, and we’ll see how long that lasts in the face of a talent discrepancy.

Changes.

The Saints traded a complementary running back, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a headline move.

But that back was Darren Sproles, who was such an integral part of their offense, catching 71 passes last year.

Replacing him will be a huge challenge, and they’re going to be relying on a deep group of backs.

Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram will likely get most of the carries, but Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet will need to make a big step to pick up the slack from Sproles’ departure.

Cooks might be the biggest beneficiary of the change, as they want to take advantage of his 4.3 speed. While it’s not a like-for-like replacement, he does have the same kind of game-changing ability as Sproles.

Camp Battles.

The Saints offensive line was a work in progress last year, but rookie Terron Armstead settled into a spot where they’re comfortable with him at left tackle. They were also able to hang onto right tackle Zach Strief and guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans return.

That leaves a hole in the middle, after Brian de la Puente left in free agency for Chicago.

Tim Lelito will get the first crack, but they brought veteran Jonathan Goodwin back for cover, giving them a reasonable competition.

It would also help if a young cornerback would step up opposite Keenan Lewis. They brought in Bailey, but all parties are probably best served if he’s able to limit his snaps a bit. Second-rounder Stanley Jean-Baptiste gives them some new size at the position, which will enable them to match up better with the big wideouts in their division.

Prospects.

They’re going to be pretty good.

If the defense continues at last year’s pace, they can be very good.

But the Saints have problems local and national.

They play in perhaps the league’s deepest division, with the Falcons healthy and re-tooled and the Buccaneers on the upswing with Lovie Smith along with the defensively stout Panthers.

Then comes the matter of whether they can stand toe-to-toe with the Seahawks and 49ers to make a push for another title.

That makes the regular season of extreme importance. They’re a different team in their own building, so getting home field advantage might mean more to them than any team in the NFC.

If they can get it, the Saints could easily be a Super Bowl team.

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Texans sign three draft picks

San Jose State running back Tyler Ervin (7) runs with the football while playing against Hawaii in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner) AP

The Houston Texans managed to get half of their draft class signed to contracts on Thursday.

According to Aaron Wilson and John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the Texans signed fourth-round running back Tyler Ervin, and fifth-round picks, safety K.J. Dillon and defensive tackle D.J. Reader, to their four-year rookie contracts.

The trio were the final three picks of the draft for Houston. Wide receiver Will Fuller, center Nick Martin and receiver Braxton Miller remain unsigned.

Per the reports, Ervin’s contract is worth $2.877 million with a $547,568 signing bonus, Dillon’s deal is worth $2.574 million with a $234,936 signing bonus and Reader’s contract is worth $2.55 million contract with a $215,380 signing bonus.

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Two-Time Division II player of the year among Jets’ 13 undrafted free agents

In a Sept. 13, 2014, photo provided by Ferris State University, Ferris State quarterback Jason Vander Laan, a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist, looks to pass during an NCAA college football game against Northwood in Midland, Mich. Vander Laan is one of the top players in The Associated Press Little All-America team, honoring the top players in Divisions II and III and NAIA. Vander Laan is responsible for 50 touchdowns (30 TD passes and 20 touchdowns rushing) and led Ferris State to the Great Lakes Athletic Conference championship. The Harlon Hill Trophy, which goes to the top player in Division II, will be presented Friday, Dec. 19. (AP Photo/Ferris State University) AP

Jason Vander Laan, a two-time winner of the Harlon Hill Trophy (Division II Heisman), as a quarterback at Ferris State was signed to play tight end by the New York Jets.

Vander Laan (pictured) became the first player in NCAA history to pass and run for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. His 5,953 career rush yards are the most for a quarterback in NCAA history. The Jets are attempting to convert the 6-foot-4, 244 pound athlete to tight end for his jump to the pros.

Vander Laan is among 13 undrafted free agents signed by the Jets.

The Jets have also added Temple wide receiver Robby Anderson, Penn State nose tackle Tarow Barney, Iowa State wide receiver Quenton Bundrage, Temple center Kyle Friend, Utah punter Tom Hackett, Ohio State wide receiver Jalin Marshall, Duke kicker Ross Martin, Western Carolina defensive end Helva Matungulu, Appalachian State safety Doug Middleton, Texas A&M defensive end Julien Obioha, USC defensive end Claude Pelon and Michigan State defensive end Lawrence Thomas.

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Colts sign four more draft picks

IOWA CITY, IA - NOVEMBER 14: Offensive lineman Austin Blythe #63 of the Iowa Hawkeyes waits to take the field before the match-up against the Minnesota Gophers on November 14, 2015 at Kinnick Stadium, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

The Colts announced Thursday that they’ve agreed to terms with four more members of their 2016 draft class. They signed first-round pick Ryan Kelly on Wednesday.

Thursday, the team finished deals with fourth-round defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, fifth-round offensive tackle Joe Haeg, seventh-round linebacker Trevor Bates and seventh-round center Austin Blythe.

Ridgeway had 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries last season at Texas. He was the only defensive line pick in a Colts draft class heavy on offensive linemen. Haeg was a two-time All-American at FCS national champion North Dakota State, while Blythe was a finalist for the Rimington Award and a key member of one of college football’s best offensive lines at Iowa.

Bates had 7.5 sacks and returned a fumble for a touchdown last season at Maine.

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Dolphins finalize contract for 7th round QB

BOWLING GREEN, KY - NOVEMBER 27: Brandon Doughty #12 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers passes against the Marshall Thundering Herd in the first half of the game at L.T. Smith Stadium on November 27, 2015 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Dolphins have agreed to terms with rookie quarterback Brandon Doughty, the Miami Herald reported Thursday.

The Dolphins drafted Doughty in the seventh round last weekend, with pick No. 223. The 6-foot-3 Doughty led the NCAA in passing yards in each of his final two college seasons at Western Kentucky. He’s a native of Davie, Fla., where the Dolphins conduct their day-to-day operations.

Doughty is the first quarterback the Dolphins have selected since drafting Ryan Tannehill in 2012.

Teams across the league have been busy signing draft picks. The Falcons signed their entire draft class Thursday, becoming the first team to do so.

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Falcons become first team to sign all their draft picks

BATON ROUGE, LA - OCTOBER 24: Linebacker Deion Jones #45 of the LSU Tigers looks to sack quarterback Brandon Doughty #12 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on October 24, 2015 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Falcons have become the first team to sign every member of their 2016 draft class to their rookie contracts.

Atlanta got the ball rolling with safety Keanu Neal on Wednesday and announced on Thursday evening that they have secured deals with their other five picks. At the rate that rookies have been signing around the league, they shouldn’t be the only team with every pick signed for too long.

Second-round linebacker Deion Jones, third-round tight end Austin Hooper, fourth-round linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, sixth-round guard Wes Schweitzer and seventh-round wide receiver Devin Fuller joined Neal as Falcons selections this year.

Jones is slated to play middle linebacker, where he could push aside incumbent starter Paul Worrilow and bring some speed to a defense that needs it. Hooper could also see a lot of playing time early after showing at Stanford that he can make plays as a receiver and can use size to be an effective blocker.

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Tom Benson again points out “ingratitude” of family members

Tom Benson AP

On Thursday, the members of Saints owner Tom Benson’s family who continue to hope to overturn his desire to exclude them from ownership of the Saints or the NBA’s Pelicans claimed that “the truth will come out” about Benson’s health condition, urging that anyone “with relevant information” about Benson’s alleged capacity “should continue to come forward.”

The allegations come thee days after the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal of the latest ruling upholding changes to Tom Benson’s will that froze out his daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. Although the challenge to the new will seems to be over, the comments from the family members reveal that hard feelings remain.

Tom Benson has fired back with a statement that further underscores the acrimony among the family members.

“We are in Louisville this week where my wife’s GMB Racing operation will start Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready this Saturday in the running of the 142nd Kentucky Derby,” Tom Benson said in a statement issued by the Saints. “We had the privilege today to discuss potential business relationships with a number of horse farms in the area.

“Gayle and I could not be more excited in our preparations for the Kentucky Derby. And equally so — we are thrilled to bring this excitement to everyone in New Orleans. We are blessed to have a great team of loyal executives and friends. Our three trainers are from New Orleans and our two jockeys come from Louisiana. This is important to me. We are having the time of our lives here in Louisville.

“While certain members of my family continue to harass me with negative threatening statements, I continue to plan for the future. Nevertheless, the ingratitude shown by certain members of my family, despite the vast financial and other benefits I have given them, is very hard to accept.”

Tom Benson issued a statement in February that made similar points regarding his estranged family members.

As it now stands, Gayle Benson will assume control of both the football team and the basketball team after Tom Benson passes. Subject, of course, to further changes to the will. It’s safe to say Tom Benson won’t be changing his will to bring Renee Benson, Rita LeBlance, or Ryan LeBlanc back into the picture.

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Andrew Luck loses big in annual slow-time player poll

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With the draft over, the only dead spot on the calendar is approaching for the NFL. What better way to fill the void than to devote 10 weeks to a made-for-TV player poll that is sufficiently flawed to fulfill the objective of generating conversation?

NFL Network’s annual “Best Players Of [Same Stuff, Different Year]” poll debuted last night, with the unveiling of No. 91 through 100. Coming in at No. 92 was, somehow, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

Luck fell a full 85 spots from 2015.

The Colts currently intend to make Luck the highest-paid player in the history of the sport, if/when team and player can agree on how much more he should be paid than anyone else ever has been paid. But he’s regarded as the 92nd best player in the NFL.

How does that happen? The explanation is surprisingly simple. Unless NFLN has changed the procedure for compiling the list (and if it ain’t fixed, why break it?), the 100 names came from a stream of players who, while passing through the NFL Media car wash over the past several months, at some point scrawled onto a piece of paper a knee-jerk list of the best 20 players in the NFL.

With Luck out of sight for much of last season due to shoulder, rib, and kidney injuries, he would have been out of mind on most of the ballots. Which resulted in Luck nearly being shunned entirely.

Of course he’s better than No. 92. And of course the fact that he landed there is further evidence that the entire process is a waste of time.

But there’s plenty of time to waste between now and the start of training camp. If the goal is to waste that time with stuff that people notice (even if they notice it for the wrong reasons), there’s only one thing to say: Mission accomplished.

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Chargers sign fifth-round linebacker

SAN DIEGO, CA - MAY 11:  NFL Rookie Ladarius Green #89 of the San Diego Chargers holds his helmet at arms length after participating in drills during a minicamp workout on May 11, 2012 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent C. Horner/Getty Images) Getty Images

Count the Chargers among the teams that have started signing their draft picks.

Linebacker Jatavis Brown, a fifth-round pick, signed a four-year deal with the Chargers on Thursday.

Brown was not invited to the Scouting Combine last February but was the 2015 Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year at Akron. He set school records last season with 20 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.

Brown grew up in Belle Glade, Fla., with new Chargers wide receiver Travis Benjamin.

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Lawyer wants to see Manziel and ex-girlfriend “kiss and make up”

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It’s a football career that has induced plenty of cringes in the last 24 months. So it makes sense that the lawyer representing unemployed quarterback Johnny Manziel would offer up a sound bite on Thursday that induced even more cringes.

Asked by reporters to identify the preferred outcome of Manziel’s pending criminal case involving allegations of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, attorney Robert Hinton said he hopes that “[e]verybody would kiss and make up.”

And that wasn’t even the most problematic thing Hinton said. He added that Manziel likely would return to Los Angeles at some point. Which provides further proof that Manziel isn’t willing or able to make the changes he needs to get back to the NFL. Indeed, it shows he still hasn’t recognized that changes are even needed.

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Junior Seau’s nephew among 19 undrafted players signed by Rams

TUCSON, AZ - DECEMBER 29:  Defensive end Ian Seau #8 of the Nevada Wolf Pack sits on the bench during the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl against the Colorado State Rams at Arizona Stadium on December 29, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wolf Pack defeated the Rams 28-23. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

The nephew of one of the greatest players ever to play college football at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will get a chance to play pro football at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Ian Seau, a defensive end who played his college ball at Nevada-Reno, has signed as an undrafted free agent with the Rams. Seau is the nephew of the late Junior Seau, who played at the Coliseum as a star linebacker for USC and then had a Hall of Fame career in the NFL.

The Rams also announced that they’ve signed 18 other undrafted free agents: Texas A&M K Taylor Bertolet, Wake Forest LB Brandon Chubb, Colorado State-Pueblo DE Morgan Fox, Arkansas S Rohan Gaines, TCU RB Aaron Green, Pitt LB Nicholas Grigsby, Vanderbilt LB Darreon Herring, Missouri Western DB Michael Jordan, Washington LB Cory Littleton, Iowa FS Jordan Lomax, Southeast Missouri State WR Paul McRoberts, Northwestern State OL Pace Murphy, Tennessee WR Marquez North, Washington State LB Kache Palacio, Tennessee S Brian Randolf, New Mexico State CB Winston Rose, Colorado WR Nelson Spruce and Kentucky OL Jordan Swindle.

Two tryout players, LS Jeffrey Overbaugh and WR Jimmy Worton, will get a shot to show what they can do at the Rams’ rookie minicamp.

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Buccaneers get deals done with a pair of their draft picks

Tampa Bay Bucaneers v New England Patriots Getty Images

The Buccaneers joined the pick-signing party, reaching deals with a pair of their own.

The team announced they had signed fourth-round defensive back Ryan Smith, and agreed to terms with fifth-round offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch. The Bucs have five more picks to sign, and there’s no reason to think it’ll be complicated.

Smith, from North Carolina Central, was his school’s all-time leaders in tackles and kickoff return average, adding some speed to the Bucs secondary. They plan to try him at safety, and he should have a chance to help on special teams immediately.

Benenoch was a three-year starter at UCLA, and could offer depth at tackle and guard.

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Marshawn Lynch can unretire, but Seattle controls his rights

SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 22:  Marshawn Lynch #24 of the Seattle Seahawks stands on the sidelines before their game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on October 22, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) Getty Images

After weeks of delay that invited speculation of a desire by Marshawn Lynch to be released, the Seahawks have placed Lynch on the reserve-retired list. It doesn’t mean Lynch is prohibited from changing his mind.

As the football-following world learned in 2008 with Brett Favre’s First Annual Unretirement, a player who wants to return needs simply to file a request for reinstatement with the league office. Once reinstated, he’s back on his prior team’s roster, at the $9 million salary he was due to earn.

The Seahawks, who drafted at last count 17 running backs last week (actually, three), would then have to decide whether to keep him, trade him, or cut him. If he’s cut, Lynch becomes a free agent, able to sign with any team.

But there’s a caveat. If Lynch decides to wait until the regular season unfolds in order to ensure that he’ll land with a contender, unretiring after the trade deadline would result in Lynch being exposed to waivers, if/when he’s released.

This means that, if the Seahawks cut Lynch so that Lynch can, for example, join his hometown team (the Raiders), another team would be able to block that maneuver by claiming Lynch’s contract.

That’s exactly what happened in 2002, when Deion Sanders wanted to unretire and climb aboard the Oakland bandwagon for a Super Bowl run. After Washington released his rights, the Chargers claimed the contract on waivers.

The Chargers made the move because Sanders had retired in 2001 due to a lack of desire to play for Marty Schottenheimer, who had been hired earlier that year. Fired after one season, Schottenheimer was the head coach in San Diego in 2002.

With Lynch, another team likely would be inclined to block him from hand picking his next team not for spite but for strategic reasons. Regardless, Lynch will eliminate that risk if he returns long enough before the trade deadline to ensure that he’d be cut without having to pass through waivers.

Even if he’s not truly ready at that point to join a team, Lynch would be smart to ensure that he has the pieces in place before the trade deadline to make a late-season debut with a team that is on track for the Super Bowl and in need of a difference-maker at tailback.

Unless he’s truly done playing. With Lynch, however, no one ever really knows what he’s going to do. Which makes it even more sensible to keep an eye on all possible outcomes.

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Eagles sign 16 rookie free agents, waive a pair

TUCSON, AZ - OCTOBER 24:  Wide receiver Cayleb Jones #1 of the Arizona Wildcats is tackled by cornerback Marcellus Pippins #27 of the Washington State Cougars after a reception during the college football game at Arizona Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona. The Cougars defeated the Wildcats 45-42. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Eagles are the latest team to announce their crop of rookie free agent signings.

The team has brought in 16 players to fill out their 90-man roster, although making room for all of them led to the release of a pair of players who will need to pursue their NFL futures elsewhere. The Eagles waived running back Kevin Monangai and defensive tackle Travis Raciti, both of whom spent time on the practice squad last year.

Among the new Eagles is wide receiver Cayleb Jones, who caught 128 passes for 1,923 yards and 14 touchdowns at Arizona over the last two seasons. According to multiple reports, they also used bigger guarantees than usual to sign San Diego State guard Darrell Greene and Incarnate Word linebacker Myke Tavarres after they went undrafted last weekend.

The rest of the signings are West Virginia long snapper John DePalma, Rutgers linebacker Quentin Gause, LSU tight end Dillon Gordon, Maine center Bruce Johnson, Texas wide receiver Marcus Johnson, Oregon running back Byron Marshall, Valdosta State running back Cedric O’Neal, Utah State wide receiver Hunter Sharp, Stanford defensive tackle Aziz Shittu, North Dakota State cornerback C.J. Smith, Lousiana Tech wide receiver Paul Turner, Washington State defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao and Boston College defensive tackle Connor Wujciak.

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Joe Anderson needs a new sign after being waived by Jets

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 29: Joe Anderson #19 of the Chicago Bears celebrates a touchdown catch against the Cleveland Browns at Soldier Field on August 29, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Browns defeated the Bears 18-16.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Getty Images

Last year, former Bears wide receiver Joe Anderson was spotted outside of the Texans stadium holding up a sign asking for another shot from an NFL team.

Anderson got one a short time later when the Jets signed him to their practice squad in December. He’ll need to either take the sign out of storage or make up a new one for the 2016 season, however.

The Jets announced Thursday that they have waived Anderson from their 90-man roster in the kind of move to clear space for incoming rookies that we’ve seen all around the league this week.

Anderson played nine games for the Bears in 2012 and 2013 seasons without catching a pass, although he did return five kickoffs and see other time on special teams.

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Steelers sign their seventh-round picks

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: Tyler Matakevich #8 of the Temple Owls walks off the field after the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) Getty Images

The check-listing of rookie contracts is in full effect, and has taken hold in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers announced they had signed seventh-rounders DeMarcus Ayers and Tyler Matakevich to their four-year rookie deals.

With draft picks descending on Pittsburgh for rookie minicamp this weekend, it was easy enough to get them signed.

Ayers, a wide receiver from Houston, could provide some help on returns this year. Matakevich is a linebacker from Temple, who was the school’s all-time leading tackler and won both the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nargurski Trophy.

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