Mar 28 2016

Make or Break and 2016 NFL Team Needs

Spring is here, and the new money is just about gone in NFL free agency. The 2016 NFL Draft is about to take center stage.

Now is the time when teams will look to fill holes on the roster using this year’s draft picks. It is also a time to look back at the previous year’s draft classes.

But there are few rookies who will even be impact players as first-round picks. And while last season’s rookies will be expected to take another step, they are still improving players who shouldn’t be written off if they don’t come through – not to mention, with a year on tape, even the best rookies from last season have to avoid the sophomore slump and show they can do it again next season.

Free agency works best as a band-aid. The top spenders in free agency frequently fall short of expectations, especially when they don’t draft well. In the NFL, free agency sets up the draft. But while the focus will be on this year’s draft and last year’s draft, the key for teams’ success in 2016 will come from the emergence of players entering their third or fourth NFL seasons.

There are two kinds of “make or break” for a player: Finding out if a fringe player belongs in the league, and finding out if a serviceable player will break out and become an indispensable player. I feel like it takes multiple seasons away from college for a player to define themselves as a professional contributor.

So with the 2016 NFL Draft coming up, I want to take a look at pressing team needs, the free agency moves they may have made to fill them, and determine which players still on the roster from the 2013 and 2014 Drafts who have the opportunity to step up and make a big difference next season.

(In order of first draft appearance):

1. Tennessee (3-13 in 2015)

– Need: OL (32nd in sacks allowed in 2015)

– Free Agency Report: The Titans have signed three defenders who used to play for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh: CB Brice McCain, ILB Sean Spence, and CB Antwon Blake. They also re-signed OT Byron Bell and NT Al Woods (another former LeBeau Steeler). WR Rishard Matthews was signed, along with QB Matt Cassel; both players figure to be third on the depth chart at their respective positions. The Titans signed former Texans C Ben Jones. Tennessee also swapped 4th-round picks with the Philadelphia Eagles in a trade that netted the Titans RB DeMarco Murray. Tennessee released FS Michael Griffin after nine seasons.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: OT Taylor Lewan (2014 1st round)

Well, this is awkward. The Titans have the first pick in the NFL Draft, one year after taking QB Marcus Mariota with the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Of course, the Titans celebrated the addition of Mariota by allowing him and backup QB Zach Mettenberger to take a combined 54 sacks. When Lewan was selected in 2014, the Titans had longtime LT Michael Roos and free agent RT Michael Oher. Lewan was seen as a luxury pick for a team that had just went 7-9 in 2013 and selected G Chance Warmack with the 10th overall pick in 2012; Warmack was the team’s first offensive lineman picked in the 1st round in 19 years. Since Lewan was drafted, Tennessee has seen Roos retire, Oher was released after one season, and Lewan has started 21 games for a team that has won an NFL-low five games in the last two seasons. Whether the Titans keep the top pick and/or drafts a new OT in round one, Lewan will be counted on as a starter in Year 3, and he will be key to any improvement that is made on the offensive line.

2. Cleveland (3-13)

– Need: OL (30th in sacks allowed)

– Free Agency Report: The focus has been on the good players from a 3-13 team who left the Browns either via unrestricted free agency or release: WR Travis Benjamin, C Alex Mack, RT Mitchell Schwartz, ILB Karlos Dansby, FS Tashaun Gipson. The Browns also released QB Johnny Manziel, WR Dwayne Bowe, and DE Randy Starks, while ILB Craig Robertson also left via free agency. The Browns signed 2012 Rookie of the Year QB Robert Griffin III, who did not appear in a game for Washington last season after being third on the depth chart. The only new offensive lineman is former Seattle reserve OT Alvin Bailey. 2015 free agent bust FS Rahim Moore signed with the Browns after the Texans released him. The Browns also signed ILB Demario Davis, formerly of the Jets.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: G Joel Bitonio (2014 2nd round)

The Browns lost two starters from a highly disappointing offensive line from last season in Mack and Schwartz, and perennial All-Pro LT Joe Thomas may still be used in a trade after nine seasons in Cleveland. Cleveland allowed 53 sacks in 2015, while finishing 22nd in total rushing yards. Bitonio had a solid rookie season, starting all 16 games in 2014. He struggled with an ankle injury in 2015, starting only ten games and ending the season on injured reserve. The Browns need Bitonio to solidify himself as an asset on the offensive line in Year 3, as he is one of the few early round draft picks the team has made that hasn’t flamed out early. Case in point: Cleveland has already parted ways with a 1st round pick (Manziel) and 3rd round pick (RB Terrance West) from Bitonio’s draft class, while the 8th pick overall from 2014, CB Justin Gilbert, played only 50 snaps on Cleveland’s franchise-worst secondary last season.

3. San Diego (4-12)

– Need: RB (32nd in rush TD)

– Free Agency Report: Before free agency, the Chargers released ILB Donald Butler, RB Donald Brown, and ILB Kavell Conner. San Diego’s most significant additions include CB Casey Hayward from Green Bay and NT Brandon Mebane from Seattle. The Chargers also signed FS Dwight Lowery from Indianapolis to replace FS Eric Weddle. The Chargers re-signed longtime TE Antonio Gates, as well as RT Joe Barksdale – the only offensive lineman to start all 16 games for the Chargers last season.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: C Chris Watt (2014 3rd round)

The Chargers finished 31st in the NFL in yards per rush in 2014, Watt’s rookie season. Watt started five games for a team that averaged only 3.4 yards per rush in 2014. The Chargers averaged only 3.5 yards per rush in 2015 despite trading up to draft RB Melvin Gordon III in round one, which ranked dead last in the NFL. Watt only appeared in five games in 2015, starting three, before his season ended on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury. The Chargers have starters in place at OT (King Dunlap, Barksdale) and G (Orlando Franklin and D.J. Fluker). Watt is one of five players to start at center for the Chargers over the last two seasons. San Diego is expected to bring in competition for Watt, as he needs to stay healthy and perform better for a team that has been consistently unstable up front.

4. Dallas (4-12)

– Need: QB (29th in pass TD)

– Free Agency Report: The Cowboys have had a very quiet offseason, relatively speaking. They added RB Alfred Morris from Washington and backup DE Benson Mayowa from Oakland, while re-signing ILB Rolando McClain. They also signed DE Cedric Thornton from Philadelphia, while DE Greg Hardy is still a free agent. That’s about it.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: WR Terrance Williams (2013 3rd round)

First of all, the Cowboys have drafted only one QB in the first three rounds of the NFL draft in the last quarter century: Quincy Carter, in the 2nd round of the 2001 NFL Draft. Every other NFL team since then has spent at least one draft pick in the first three rounds on a QB. Anyways, Williams really missed QB Tony Romo this past season, especially in the end zone. Williams scored three receiving TDs in two 2014 postseason games, after scoring eight during the 2014 regular season. He scored only three receiving TDs in 16 games in 2015. The Cowboys lost 11 of the 12 games that Romo didn’t start in 2015, and Williams’ running mate, WR Dez Bryant, only made it through nine games. Williams has proven to be a good deep threat – his 16.5 yards per reception in three seasons ranks fifth out of 112 players who have caught at least 100 passes since 2013. But his catch rate has declined each season, bottoming out at 55.9 percent in 2015 (ranked 43rd out of 53 players with at least 90 targets). The Cowboys should prioritize insurance for Romo, who turns 36 years old in April. Whoever the QB is for the Cowboys, Williams figures to be a factor again as a starter going into the final year of his contract.

5. Jacksonville (5-11)

– Need: LB (26th in rush TD allowed)

– Free Agency Report: The headliner for Jacksonville was signing former Denver DT Malik Jackson to a six-year, $90 million contract, continuing a trend where the Jaguars pay out big money to a defensive lineman (see Jared Odrick, Sen’Derrick Marks) and a player with limited starting experience (Jackson started all 16 games for the Broncos in 2015, eight games combined in the previous three seasons). Jacksonville supplemented the addition of Jackson by adding FS Tashaun Gipson from Cleveland, CB Prince Amukamara from the New York Giants, RB Chris Ivory from the New York Jets, and OT Kelvin Beachum from Pittsburgh. Jacksonville released LG Zane Beadles, who the team signed in free agency from Denver in 2014, and signed backup G Mackenzy Bernadeau from Dallas. Longtime TE Marcedes Lewis also re-signed with the Jaguars, while DE Chris Clemons was released. The Jaguars also signed P Brad Nortman from Carolina to replace P Bryan Anger, who the team selected in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft (six spots over Seattle QB Russell Wilson).

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: OLB Telvin Smith (2014 5th round)

First of all, this is Jacksonville’s 5th season in a row that they’re drafting in the top five, which is kind of ridiculous. Smith is the only LB selected by the Jaguars in GM David Caldwell’s three seasons. Smith goes 6’3″, 223 pounds, and his speed is an asset as a playmaker. Smith has 4.5 career sacks, two career INTs, and he leads the Jaguars in solo tackles over the last two seasons. As Smith looks to put it all together in Year 3, the Jaguars could use a bigger playmaker to complement him at LB, as only the Titans and Saints have allowed more points over the last two seasons than the Jaguars.

6. Baltimore (5-11)

– Need: QB, WR, TE (23rd in pass TD)

– Free Agency Report: The Ravens used the franchise tag to keep K Justin Tucker. ILB Daryl Smith was released, while DE Chris Canty’s option wasn’t picked up. Baltimore signed three players who will be 30 or older when the 2016 regular season starts: TE Benjamin Watson from New Orleans, FS Eric Weddle from San Diego, and WR Mike Wallace following his release from Minnesota. Weddle replaces SS Will Hill, who was released after the NFL suspended him for 10 games. Sadly, 2015 4th round CB Tray Walker passed away after a road accident in Florida this month.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: TE Crockett Gillmore (2014 3rd round)

Gillmore got swept up in the biblical wave of Ravens injury in 2015, missing six games in all and being placed on injured reserve with labral tears in both shoulders. The good news for Gillmore is that he is expected to be ready for training camp. Gillmore has potential short-term and long-term blocks to playing time going forward. Watson is 35, but he’s the starter after a career-best 825-yard season with the Saints, while the Ravens drafted TE Maxx Williams in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Gillmore outperformed Williams last season, gaining 412 yards and scoring four TDs compared to 268 yards and one TD for Williams in 2015. At 6’6″, 270 pounds, Gillmore has the size that Watson and Williams don’t have, but his shoulders and the logjam at the position will make it challenging for Gillmore to distinguish himself in Year 3.

7. San Francisco (5-11)

– Need: QB, WR, TE (29th in pass TD)

– Free Agency Report: The 49ers have been the NFC Browns this offseason, as they combine a GM who oversaw a mass exodus last offseason with a head coach who became notorious for giving talent away in Philadelphia. The team is at a stalemate with QB Colin Kaepernick, who has been the subject of myriad trade rumors. For new head coach Chip Kelly, Kaepernick and QB Blaine Gabbert are to the 2016 49ers what Michael Vick and Nick Foles were to the 2013 Eagles in Kelly’s first (and best) season in Philadelphia. Veterans such as WR Anquan Boldin and RB Reggie Bush are still free agents, while LG Alex Boone left for Minnesota. LG Zane Beadles signed with the 49ers following his release from Jacksonville. The 49ers managed to re-sign NT Ian Williams, but ankle surgery forced him to settle for a one-year deal. K Phil Dawson is also back for another season.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: WR Quinton Patton (2013 4th round)

It was nice of Patton to score a go-ahead fourth quarter TD in a Week 6 win against the Ravens last season. It is Patton’s only career TD after three seasons. While Patton became San Francisco’s third WR in 2015 behind Boldin and Torrey Smith, he hasn’t shown that he is a playmaker. The only WRs with more targets than Patton and only one TD since 2013 are Browns WR Taylor Gabriel and free agent WRs Ace Sanders, Vincent Brown, and Santonio Holmes. Out of 137 players who were targeted at least 50 times in 2015, Patton’s 52.6 percent catch rate ranked 120th. Patton is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and he’ll be playing for his third head coach in as many seasons. At the same time, Patton is the team’s second-leading WR right now with Boldin still a free agent, and he isn’t small at 6’0″, 204 pounds. The size should appeal to Kelly, and for what it’s worth, Patton gained more yards with Gabbert at QB (230 receiving yards in final eight games of 2015) than with Kaepernick (164 receiving yards in first eight games of 2015).

8. Philadelphia (7-9)

– Need: DE, DT (32nd in rush yards allowed)

– Free Agency Report: The Eagles have made moves at just about every position. They traded CB Byron Maxwell and ILB Kiko Alonso to Miami, swapping 2016 1st round picks with the Dolphins in the process. The Eagles also traded RB DeMarco Murray to Tennessee, swapping 4th round picks in that trade. Backup QB Mark Sanchez was traded to Denver after QB Sam Bradford was re-signed to a two-year deal. Backup QB Chase Daniel was signed from Kansas City to a three-year deal, reuniting him with new Eagles head coach and former Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson. The Eagles released WR Riley Cooper and eventually wound up signing WR Rueben Randle from the Giants and WR Chris Givens from the Ravens. TEs Brent Celek and Zach Ertz signed extensions, along with RT Lane Johnson, DE Vinny Curry, and SS Malcolm Jenkins. RG Brandon Brooks left Houston to sign with the Eagles. DE Cedric Thornton left for Dallas, while ILB DeMeco Ryans was released. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz saw three of his former Bills players sign with the Eagles: CB Leodis McKelvin, ILB Nigel Bradham, and CB Ron Brooks. CB Nolan Carroll re-signed with the Eagles, while FS Rodney McLeod left the Rams to sign a five-year deal with the Eagles.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: DT Bennie Logan (2013 3rd round)

It’s going to be an interesting contract year for Logan. The Philadelphia run defense collapsed last season, Schwartz is changing the defense to a 4-3 scheme, and the team still has to figure out how to pay DT Fletcher Cox. But Logan has the ability to be Schwartz’s new Marcell Dareus this season, albeit without the same impact as a pass rusher. Logan also needs to stay healthy – he missed the first two games of his career last season after going on injured reserve with a calf injury, then underwent minor knee surgery this offseason. The Eagles may need to draft insurance for Logan – not just for injury, but in case he has a major role in the run defense bouncing back in their first season without Chip Kelly keeping them on the field more than any defense in the NFL. In the latter scenario, Logan could leave as a highly coveted unrestricted free agent in 2017.

9. Tampa Bay (6-10)

– Need: DB (25th in pass TD allowed)

– Free Agency Report: Tampa Bay made sure RB Doug Martin didn’t leave after a bounce-back season, and they retained him with a five-year deal. LG Logan Mankins retired, and he will be replaced by former Seattle G J.R. Sweezy. LB Bruce Carter was released. DE Robert Ayers left the Giants to sign a three-year deal with Tampa Bay, and CB Brent Grimes signed a two-year deal with Tampa Bay following his release from Miami. ILB Daryl Smith also signed with Tampa Bay following his release from Baltimore. The Buccaneers signed CB Josh Robinson from Minnesota and P Bryan Anger from Jacksonville. FS Chris Conte was also re-signed.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: CB Johnthan Banks (2013 2nd round)

Banks was Tampa Bay’s first selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. He’s the only defensive back the team has drafted in the past three years. Banks started all 16 games as a rookie in former head coach Greg Schiano’s defense, then he led the Buccaneers with four INTs in his first season with Lovie Smith in 2014. Smith soured on Banks in 2015, as Banks started only seven of 14 games, failing to record an INT and breaking up only one pass. Mind you, 2015 was a season that saw the Buccaneers allow a franchise-worst 31 pass TDs while recording a nine-year low 11 INTs, yet Banks saw his playing time cut. Smith’s firing puts Banks back in position to reclaim a spot in the lineup, just in time for the final year of his rookie deal. Banks will have plenty of competition, as CB Alterraun Verner (another player benched in 2015) returns, adding to a CB group that now includes new acquisitions Grimes and Robinson. But Banks has the size (6’2″) that the other three CBs don’t have (Verner, Grimes, and Robinson are all 5’10”), and Banks has shown playmaking ability in the past. A bounce-back year for Banks should help improve what was the worst Tampa Bay pass defense in franchise history.

10. New York Giants (6-10)

– Need: DB (32nd in pass yards allowed)

– Free Agency Report: The Giants decided to wait until Tom Coughlin was gone before spending money to make up for their poor drafts. New York spent more than $200 million on new contracts for DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DT Damon Harrison from the Jets, DE Olivier Vernon from Miami, and CB Janoris Jenkins from the Rams. ILB Keenan Robinson was also signed from Washington. CB Prince Amukamara, DE Robert Ayers, and WR Rueben Randle departed in free agency. ILB Jon Beason retired, G Geoff Schwartz was released, and OT Will Beatty’s contract was terminated following a failed physical.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: S Nat Berhe (2014 5th round)

Berhe had a tough 2015 season. He spent the entire year on injured reserve with a calf injury, and one of his cousins was a victim in the San Bernardino shootings in December. As for the Giants, the team watched as all of their safeties were torched for 4,783 pass yards, the worst figure in the NFL in 2015 and only 13 yards shy of the most pass yards allowed in a single season in NFL history. Rookie FS Landon Collins started all 16 games, but the Giants had to start Brandon Meriweather and Craig Dahl at the other safety spot. Meriweather and Dahl weren’t with the Giants when training camp started, and they’re both free agents right now. Berhe was a special teamer in 2014, and he was poised to challenge for a starting job in 2015 before his injury. If healthy, Berhe still has a chance to compete and help improve what still looks like New York’s biggest weakness.

11. Chicago (6-10)

– Need: QB, WR (23rd in pass TD)

– Free Agency Report: The primary order of business for Chicago was to place the franchise tag on WR Alshon Jeffery. The Bears signed ILB Danny Trevathan from Denver to a four-year contract and ILB Jerrell Freeman from Indianapolis to a three-year contract. DE Akiem Hicks left New England to sign a two-year deal with Chicago. Former Arizona RT Bobby Massie signed a three-year deal with Chicago, which allows Kyle Long to move back to RG. TE Zach Miller was re-signed, and the Bears traded TE Martellus Bennett to New England with a 2016 6th round pick in exchange for a 2016 4th round pick. RB Matt Forté was allowed to leave in free agency after eight seasons with the team. The Bears released LT Jermon Bushrod, while ILB Shea McClellin left for New England.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: QB David Fales (2014 6th round)

Fales has yet to play a snap in two seasons with the Bears, and he’s about to get his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons. While new coordinator Dowell Loggains affects starting QB Jay Cutler more directly going into the 2016 NFL season, Fales enters the conversation at QB because Cutler has missed at least one game each season since 2010. Fales enters the 2016 season as the next guy up, and while Cutler is coming off his most efficient season (career-high 92.3 passer rating in 2015), he still has a big contract and will turn 33 in April. Chicago backup QBs have gone 5-10 since 2010 as starters in place of Cutler with varying degrees of success: QB Josh McCown went 3-2 with Chicago in 2013 and turned that into a starter’s contract for Tampa Bay in 2014 and Cleveland in 2015. QB Jimmy Clausen was shut out in a Week 3 start in place of Cutler this past season. His midseason release is why Fales is the current backup.

12. New Orleans (7-9)

– Need: DB (32nd in pass TD allowed)

– Free Agency Report: New Orleans released a significant number of players: RG Jahri Evans, WR Marques Colston, and ILB David Hawthorne. CB Brandon Browner was also let go after an embarrassing season of blown coverages and costly penalties. TE Benjamin Watson left for Baltimore, and he was replaced by TE Coby Fleener from Indianapolis. The Saints signed ILB James Laurinaitis following his release from the Rams, and ILB Craig Robertson signed a three-year deal to leave Cleveland. DT Nick Fairley also left the Rams to sign with the Saints. K Josh Scobee signed with New Orleans.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: SS Kenny Vaccaro (2013 1st round)

Vaccaro started all 16 games for the first time in his three-year career in 2015. In fact, he missed only two snaps all season! That’s just about where the good news ends. Vaccaro did not record an INT for the first time in his career in 2015, and he was a starting DB on a defense that allowed a 116.2 passer rating, the worst in NFL history. New Orleans gave up a record 45 pass TDs in 2015. Vaccaro has shown versatility, lining up in multiple spots on the defense while racking up 3.0 sacks in 2015. He’s probably the least of New Orleans’ problems in the secondary. But if that’s the case, then he has to show the ability to lead a drastic turnaround against the pass.

13. Miami (6-10)

– Need: OL (24th in sacks allowed)

– Free Agency Report: Miami released starting CBs Brent Grimes and Brice McCain, along with backup WR Greg Jennings. DE Mario Williams signed a two-year deal following his release from Buffalo, but then the Dolphins rescinded the transition tag assigned to DE Olivier Vernon, which allowed Vernon to sign with the New York Giants. RB Lamar Miller signed with Houston, while WR Rishard Matthews signed with Tennessee. OT Jermon Bushrod signed with Miami following his release from Chicago. Backup QB Matt Moore signed a two-year deal to return to Miami. The Dolphins moved from 8 to 13 in the 1st round of the 2016 NFL Draft following a trade with Philadelphia that sent CB Byron Maxwell and ILB Kiko Alonso to Miami.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: LG Dallas Thomas (2013 3rd round)

Here’s another team that has perennial offensive line issues. Miami selected an offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the draft every year from 2010-2014. Thomas has played more each season, starting all 16 games in 2015. It did not go well, as he was a weak link to an offensive line that allowed 45 sacks. The Dolphins signed Bushrod to be a potential option at guard, not tackle, where Branden Albert and 2014 1st round pick Ja’Wuan James are entrenched. The levels of desperation on Miami’s part are obvious, as Bushrod has never played guard before. Thomas is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and he’ll be hard-pressed to see another 16-start season unless he shows vast improvement going into his fourth NFL season.

14. Oakland (7-9)

– Need: RB (28th in rush yards)

– Free Agency Report: Oakland’s offseason began with the retirement of FS Charles Woodson and the release (and subsequent re-signing) of SS Nate Allen. Oakland then set its sights on becoming offseason champs, signing LG Kelechi Osemele from Baltimore, OLB Bruce Irvin from Seattle, and CB Sean Smith from Kansas City. LT Donald Penn was also re-signed. ILB Curtis Lofton was released, while DE Justin Tuck joined Woodson in retirement. P Marquette King signed a contract extension.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: RB Latavius Murray (2013 6th round)

I didn’t want to dip into last season’s pool of recent draftees, but then again, Murray is in a different situation than he was at this time last year. Heading into the 2015 season, Murray had never been the full-time starter. In some ways, Murray handled being a first-time starter well in 2015, gaining 1,066 rushing yards and earning a selection to the Pro Bowl. But while the Raiders are being feted for their young offensive Pro Bowlers, folks are ignoring the fact that the offense fell off a cliff in the second half of the season, averaging 82 fewer yards a game in their last eight games. Murray had no support in the running game, as the other RBs (FBs Jamize Olawale and Marcel Reese along with RBs Roy Helu and Taiwan Jones) combined for 67 carries, 259 rushing yards (3.9 average), and one TD in 2015. Murray’s rushing proficiency also dropped off as the season went along. He went from 630 rushing yards and 4.8 yards per carry in the first eight games of the season to 436 rushing yards and 3.3 yards per carry in the final eight games of the season. Murray also had only two 100-yard rushing games all season, none in the last nine games. The Raiders need to add another RB to at least complement Murray in 2016, and probably even replace him, as Murray enters the final year of his rookie deal.

15. Los Angeles (7-9)

– Need: WR, TE (32nd in pass yards)

– Free Agency Report: The Rams released ILB James Laurinaitis, DE Chris Long, and TE Jared Cook. CB Trumaine Johnson was assigned the franchise tag, while CB Janoris Jenkins (New York Giants) and FS Rodney McLeod (Philadelphia) left in free agency. DE William Hayes was re-signed, along with OLB Mark Barron, WR Brian Quick, and DE Eugene Sims. DE Quinton Coples also signed with the Rams following his release from Miami.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: WR Tavon Austin (2013 1st round)

Once again, we dip into last year’s well in this space. The Rams are the new Raiders in terms of nonexistent production from the WRs. The last Rams receiver to gain 1,000 yards was WR Torry Holt in 2007. Since then, the Rams haven’t even had a receiver gain 800 yards in a season. Needless to say, that’s the longest drought in the NFL. Austin is a dynamic player with the ball in his hands, and he has scored 19 total TDs since the Rams drafted him 8th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. Austin has scored via pass, rush, and punt return multiple times in his three-year NFL career. But Austin has not shown the ability to be a consistent difference maker as a WR. He gained a career-high 473 yards in 2015, but that brings his career total to 1,133 receiving yards. Worse, Austin averages only 9.2 yards per reception. Out of 112 players who have caught at least 100 passes since 2013, Austin’s yards per reception average ranks 95th overall and dead last among WRs. His ability as a rusher and returner demand that he has a role in the offense and the ball in his hands. But the Rams probably aren’t getting 1,000 yards out of him as a WR.

16. Detroit (7-9)

– Need: LB (30th in rush TD allowed)

– Free Agency Report: For the second time in a quarter century, the Lions oversaw the retirement of a player who gained more than 10,000 yards from scrimmage for the Detroit Lions. After the 1998 season, it was RB Barry Sanders. After the 2015 season, it was WR Calvin Johnson. The Lions signed WR Marvin Jones from Cincinnati to take Johnson’s vacated spot. CB Rashean Mathis also retired, while RB Joique Bell’s contract was terminated. Detroit re-signed DT Haloti Ngata, OLB Tahir Whitehead, and backup QB Dan Orlovsky.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: OLB Kyle Van Noy (2014 2nd round)

Van Noy was drafted 40th overall out of Brigham Young University one year after the Lions selected DE Ezekiel Ansah 5th overall out of BYU. Ansah (30.0 career sacks in three seasons) has worked out. Van Noy (1.0 sack in two seasons) has not. Van Noy’s rookie season was ruined by an abdominal injury that limited him to only eight games and 51 snaps. Van Noy appeared in 15 games in his second season, but he played only 79 snaps on defense for the entire season. Van Noy was billed as a versatile playmaker who could play strongside linebacker on early downs while rushing the passer on third down. All Van Noy has really done so far is contribute on special teams. The Lions are expected to get OLB DeAndre Levy back after Levy missed all but 17 snaps last season due to hip injuries. The Lions really need Van Noy to show something on defense in Year 3, especially if Whitehead moves over to ILB to replace Stephen Tulloch.

17. Atlanta (8-8)

– Need: QB, WR, TE (23rd in pass TD)

– Free Agency Report: The Falcons released longtime WR Roddy White, along with SS William Moore, OLB Justin Durant, and DT Paul Soliai. C Alex Mack was signed away from Cleveland. The Falcons re-signed DE Adrian Clayborn, and also added DE Derrick Shelby from Miami and OLB Courtney Upshaw from Baltimore. QB Matt Schaub is the new backup QB after leaving Baltimore as well.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: TE Levine Toilolo (2013 4th round)

The Falcons have had some huge TEs in the last quarter century, from Toilolo (6’8″, 260) to O.J. Santiago (6’7″, 265, 1997 3rd round pick by Falcons). Santiago was a disappointment, scoring only seven TDs in three seasons with the Falcons. Toilolo’s size hasn’t been an asset as a receiver at all, as he has a total of four receiving TDs in three years. Toilolo played in every game last season and was on the field for 522 snaps, but he only caught seven passes for 44 yards and not a single TD. Atlanta didn’t have a single TE who caught more than one TD pass last season.

18. Indianapolis (8-8)

– Need: RB (28th in rush TD)

– Free Agency Report: The Colts busted hard in free agency last year. One marquee acquisition, WR Andre Johnson, was released. Indianapolis has blown draft picks as well, resulting in the release of 2013 1st round OLB Bjoern Werner. The Colts chose to re-sign TE Dwayne Allen and let TE Coby Fleener walk. ILB Jerrell Freeman also left in free agency; Fleener and Freeman got into it over the Colts locker room issues after both signed elsewhere, highlighting another example of the Colts’ underlying dysfunction. QB Matt Hasselbeck retired while Week 17 QBs Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley were both released; former Green Bay QB Scott Tolzien was signed to be the new backup QB. Indianapolis also signed backup RBs Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman. FS Dwight Lowery signed with San Diego, while the Colts signed former Chargers CB Patrick Robinson. K Adam Vinatieri re-signed with the Colts as well.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: RG Hugh Thornton (2013 3rd round)

Thornton has started 32 games between both guard spots in three seasons with the Colts. Injuries have been a nagging issue for him, as he ended the 2015 season on injured reserve with an ankle injury and the 2014 season with a knee injury. Thornton is a power blocker, but the Colts haven’t had a runner gain 100 rush yards in a game since he’s been drafted. RB Frank Gore failed to have a 100-yard rushing game all season for the first time in his career, and he was held to a career-low 3.7 yards per carry. But Gore was also the only player on the team to score a rushing TD, and the Colts were the only team in the league that had only one RB rush for 100 yards all season. We’re not even getting into the Colts’ annual problems protecting starting QB Andrew Luck, the team’s second-leading rusher last season (196 yards in seven games). Gore is going to be 33 years old next season, so the Colts need to get serious about adding talent behind him, but the offensive line has to be better too. Thornton is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and the Colts desperately need him to stay healthy and productive.

19. Buffalo (8-8)

– Need: DE (31st in sacks)

– Free Agency Report: The team released DE Mario Williams, a surprisingly poor fit in head coach Rex Ryan’ defense last season. The team assigned the franchise tag to LT Cordy Glenn and re-signed LG Richie Incognito. OLB Nigel Bradham left in free agency.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: ILB Preston Brown (2014 3rd round)

The Bills haven’t drafted a defensive lineman in any of the last four drafts. 2016 will also be the first season that they aren’t breaking in a new defensive coordinator since 2011, though head coach Rex Ryan did hire his brother Rob as a senior assistant this offseason. Obviously, they’re going to need to replenish the depth on the defensive line, but let’s get to Brown, the highest drafted front seven defender taken by the team in the last two drafts. Brown has appeared in every game for the Bills since being drafted, and he started every game in 2015, recording two INTs and missing only 20 snaps all season. Brown doesn’t have a sack in his career yet, though, and the Bills weren’t good against the run either, allowing 4.4 yards per rush (ranked 25th in the NFL last season). The Bills need Brown to make more of an impact in the middle of the defense, or they may have yet another coaching change in 2017.

20. New York Jets (10-6)

– Need: P (31st in average net punt)

– Free Agency Report: The Jets used the franchise tag on DE Muhammad Wilkerson, then watched NT Damon Harrison sign with the Giants. The Jets released TE Jeff Cumberland, WR Jeremy Kerley, and CB Antonio Cromartie. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is still a free agent. RB Matt Forté signed a three-year deal to replace RB Chris Ivory, who signed with Jacksonville. ILB Demario Davis signed with Cleveland. OLB Calvin Pace and K Randy Bullock are also unsigned free agents who finished the season as starters with New York. TE Kellen Davis and RB Bilal Powell were both re-signed to one-year deals. Former Pittsburgh NT Steve McLendon signed with the Jets.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: TE Jace Amaro (2014 2nd round)

Amaro looked lost as a rookie in 2014, struggling with blocking and drops while averaging only 9.1 yards per reception. Then Amaro spent all of 2015 on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. The Jets completely abandoned the TE position in 2015, as Cumberland and Davis combined to catch eight passes for 95 yards and one TD all season. It’s not as if Cumberland and Davis weren’t on the field – the two TEs combined for 433 snaps, yet were targeted only 25 times. Amaro had 38 receptions (53 targets) for 345 yards and two TDs as a rookie, and he profiled as a slot TE coming out of Texas Tech. Amaro won’t be handed a role going into his third NFL season, but if he can get on the field and stay healthy, then it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be able to outproduce in one month what New York got from their TEs over the course of the entire 2015 season.

21. Washington (9-7)

– Need: DT (31st in rush average allowed)

– Free Agency Report: Washington assigned the franchise tag to QB Kirk Cousins and released third-string QB Robert Griffin III. Backup QB Colt McCoy signed a new three-year deal. Washington also released FS Dashon Goldson, backup SS Jeron Johnson, and DE Jason Hatcher. RB Alfred Morris followed Griffin out of Washington as he signed with Dallas. NT Terrance Knighton is still an unrestricted free agent. ILB Keenan Robinson signed with the Giants. OLB Junior Galette missed all of last season with a torn Achilles, but he is back on a one-year deal.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: OLB Trent Murphy (2014 2nd round)

Murphy is an edge defender who has started 23 games at OLB. Washington anticipates having OLBs Ryan Kerrigan, Junior Galette, and Preston Smith as the top three pass rushers in 2016. That doesn’t leave Murphy without a role – just without a clearly defined one. Washington wants him on the field, but that may mean that Murphy moves inside or even to five-technique DE. Washington’s run defense was abysmal in 2015 and the defensive line will look much different in 2016. It’s a bit much to ask a player 6’5″, 258 to become a 3-4 DE, but that’s the situation Murphy is in going into his third NFL season.

22. Houston (9-7)

– Need: RB (24th in rush TD)

– Free Agency Report: One year after releasing the best WR in franchise history (Andre Johnson), Houston released the best RB in franchise history, Arian Foster. Houston signed former Denver QB Brock Osweiler to a four-year contract, but their best move may have been signing former Miami RB Lamar Miller. Houston signed G Jeff Allen from Kansas City and C Tony Bergstrom from Oakland, but they lost RG Brandon Brooks to Philadelphia and C Ben Jones to Tennessee. WR Nate Washington signed with New England. K Nick Novak and P Shane Lechler both re-signed. TE Garrett Graham and 2015 free agent bust FS Rahim Moore were released.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: FB Jay Prosch (2014 6th round)

Prosch has appeared in every game for Houston since being drafted, and he has had to block for six different RBs over the last two seasons. Miller is on tap to be the seventh, and if Prosch is going to retain his role, he’ll need to get on the same page as Miller. Miami didn’t have a FB in Miller’s three seasons as a starter, so there will be an adjustment. Prosch was 12th among FBs in snaps in 2015, but he doesn’t touch the ball (7 career touches for 57 total yards and no TD in 32 games), so he will need to be a difference-maker as a run blocker to justify his role in the offense going forward.

23. Minnesota (11-5)

– Need: WR, TE (31st in pass yards)

– Free Agency Report: Minnesota released WR Mike Wallace. Minnesota signed LG Alex Boone from San Francisco and RT Andre Smith from Cincinnati, which should allow Brandon Fusco to move to RG. The Vikings signed another former Cincinnati player in backup OLB Emmanuel Lamur, while CB Terence Newman re-signed. S Michael Griffin signed with Minnesota following his release from Tennessee.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: WR Cordarrelle Patterson (2013 1st round)

Patterson has some similarities to Rams WR Tavon Austin. Both were 1st round picks in 2013, and both have proven to be electric when the ball is in their hands. Unfortunately for Patterson, his regression as a receiver has overshadowed any positives about his gamebreaking ability. Patterson has scored 13 career TDs in three seasons, with multiple scores as a receiver, rusher, and kickoff returner. But he played only 57 snaps on offense in 2015, and he was thrown to only two times all season (Patterson caught both passes and gained only ten receiving yards). Patterson has size, speed, and agility. But like Wallace, Patterson is a poor fit with QB Teddy Bridgewater, as his route running issues from college haven’t improved. Minnesota desperately needs a true top WR to complement WRs Stefon Diggs and Jarius Wright, and it would be nice if Patterson found a way to reverse his regression in his fourth season.

24. Cincinnati (12-4)

– Need: WR (15th in pass yards)

– Free Agency Report: WRs Mohamed Sanu (Atlanta) and Marvin Jones (Detroit) left the Bengals as unrestricted free agents, along with RT Andre Smith (Minnesota). FS Reggie Nelson and CB Leon Hall are still unrestricted free agents, though SS George Iloka and CB Adam Jones were both re-signed.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: WR James Wright (2014 7th round)

Louisiana State has sent good receiving talent to the NFL in recent years (Rueben Randle, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry). Wright is not exactly on those players’ levels, as he was behind all three on the LSU depth chart in college. He caught only 25 passes in four years at LSU, gaining 304 scoreless yards. Wright wasn’t impressive as a rookie, catching only five of 16 targets for 91 yards and no TDs, and he was actually waived/injured by Cincinnati after suffering a torn PCL injury in his knee; he was later moved to injured reserve. Wright still isn’t 100 percent, but the Bengals are as thin as can be at WR opposite A.J. Green. It would be a major bargain if Cincinnati got Wright healthy in time for training camp to compete for a role in their shallow receiving corps. Wright has good size (6’1″, 201), and he has at least shown that he is capable of holding down a roster spot based on special teams play as a rookie.

25. Pittsburgh (10-6)

– Need: DB (30th in pass yards allowed)

– Free Agency Report: The Steelers won’t have WR Martavis Bryant for the 2016 NFL season, as he was suspended by the NFL for one year due to another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. The Steelers re-signed LG Ramon Foster and signed former Denver LT Ryan Harris to replace LT Kelvin Beachum, who signed with Jacksonville. Longtime TE Heath Miller retired, and he will be replaced by former San Diego TE Ladarius Green. CB William Gay also re-signed. NT Steve McLendon left for the New York Jets, while SS Will Allen is still an unrestricted free agent.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: SS Shamarko Thomas (2013 4th round)

Thomas was profiled here last year following the retirement of SS Troy Polamalu, but Thomas watched as Allen started 13 games. Thomas appeared in 15 games, but he hasn’t started a game in the last two seasons, and he only played 20 snaps on defense in 2015. While Pittsburgh’s pass defense continues to decay, Thomas still hasn’t been able to get on the field. Now, Thomas enters the last year of his contract, and while Allen is still a free agent, Pittsburgh re-signed backup S Robert Golden. Golden started the three games that Allen missed opposite 16-game starting FS Mike Mitchell.

26. Seattle (10-6)

– Need: OL (26th in sacks allowed)

– Free Agency Report: The Seahawks lost several starters in unrestricted free agency: LT Russell Okung (Denver), RG J.R. Sweezy (Tampa Bay), DT Brandon Mebane (San Diego), and OLB Bruce Irvin (Oakland). RB Marshawn Lynch “retired”, though he has yet to officially file his paperwork and be placed on the reserve/retired list. Seattle did re-sign WR Jermaine Kearse, DT Ahtyba Rubin, CB Jeremy Lane, and P Jon Ryan.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: LG Justin Britt (2014 2nd round)

Britt has started every game for Seattle in his two NFL seasons. He was a RT as a rookie, and he shifted to LG in his second season. Seattle has been poor protecting the passer each season. Somehow, Seattle got worse this offseason, losing Okung and Sweezy. Seattle is one of five teams to allow at least 40 sacks in each of the last three seasons, and Seattle is the only one of those five teams with more rushing attempts than passing attempts. Britt may be the most valuable piece Seattle has on their offensive line right now. That’s a problem, even if Britt settles into one of the two positions he has been asked to start at.

27. Green Bay (10-6)

– Need: WR (25th in pass yards)

– Free Agency Report: Yes, the Packers actually signed a free agent from another team this year. Former Rams TE Jared Cook signed with Green Bay, one year after leading the NFL in targets without a receiving TD. Green Bay also re-signed backup RB James Starks, DT Letroy Guion, OLB Nick Perry, and K Mason Crosby. NT B.J. Raji retired. WR James Jones is an unrestricted free agent that will not be back. OLB Mike Neal is also an unrestricted free agent.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: WR Davante Adams (2014 2nd round)

Davante Adams was initially looked at as a candidate to step up even before WR Jordy Nelson tore his ACL in the preseason. Adams struggled mightily in his second NFL season, catching only 50 of 94 targets for 483 receiving yards (9.7 average) and one TD. Of 53 players with at least 90 targets last season, Adams ranked 48th overall in yards per reception, with only one WR ranking lower (Detroit WR Golden Tate). Adams also ranked dead last in receiving TDs by players with at least 90 targets last season, while his 53.2 percent catch rate ranked 47th out of 53 (the six players ranked lower all averaged at least four more yards a reception than Adams). The Packers are getting Nelson back to replace Jones, but Adams will have to fend off fellow recent draftees Ty Montgomery, Jared Abbrederis, and Jeff Janis to keep his role. The Packers would still be justified in adding a 1st round WR for the first time since taking Javon Walker 20th overall in 2002.

28. Kansas City (11-5)

– Need: WR (30th in pass yards)

– Free Agency Report: Kansas City has had a rough offseason. The Chiefs were stripped of a 2016 3rd round draft pick and a 2017 6th round draft pick in addition to multiple fines for tampering with 2015 free agent WR Jeremy Maclin. At least they got Maclin and won a playoff game, but the health of OLB Justin Houston is now a major concern after he underwent ACL surgery. Houston could miss the 2016 NFL season. The Chiefs also lost CB Sean Smith, RG Jeff Allen, and backup QB Chase Daniel to unrestricted free agency, while releasing LG Ben Grubbs. The Chiefs re-signed OLB Tamba Hali, ILB Derrick Johnson, and DE Jaye Howard, while placing the franchise tag on FS Eric Berry. Backup FS Husain Abdullah announced his retirement. RT Mitchell Schwartz left Cleveland to sign with the Chiefs.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: WR De’Anthony Thomas (2014 4th round)

Thomas was drafted as an offensive weapon out of Oregon, and he didn’t really have a set position as a rookie. Officially, Thomas was a RB in 2014, and he gained 269 yards from scrimmage, scoring a TD on a run and another on a punt return. The Chiefs officially made Thomas a WR going into the 2015 season, but Thomas gained only 140 receiving yards on 17 receptions (8.2 average) before he was placed on the reserve/NFI list after ten games. The circumstances surrounding Thomas’ season ending after only ten games are murky, with Thomas suggesting he had a concussion while the team appeared to distance themselves from him. Even with the addition of Maclin and the emergence of TE Travis Kelce, the Chiefs need more WRs to emerge. Thomas may not have the skill set to be that player, and it’s unclear if he gets the chance to be in Kansas City.

29. Arizona (13-3)

– Need: ST (32nd in average net punt)

– Free Agency Report: The Cardinals were smoked in the NFC Championship at Carolina, but the trade they made with the loser of the AFC Championship may be the most defining move made by GM Steve Keim. Arizona acquired OLB Chandler Jones in exchange for RG Jonathan Cooper and a 2016 2nd round pick. Arizona also re-signed RB Chris Johnson, backup QB Drew Stanton, TE Jermaine Gresham, and P Drew Butler. RT Bobby Massie left for Chicago, while SS Rashad Johnson signed with Tennessee. G Evan Mathis left Denver to sign with Arizona, while former Kansas City SS Tyvon Branch signed with the Cardinals as well. Starting C Lyle Sendlein and CB Jerraud Powers are still unrestricted free agents.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: DE Ed Stinson (2014 5th round)

The Cardinals haven’t used many draft picks on defensive linemen, but Stinson emerged as a rotational lineman in his second NFL season last year. Stinson played in 15 games last season, recording one sack and ten solo tackles. The Arizona defensive line combined for only 11 sacks all of last season, and the Cardinals allowed 143.5 rushing yards per game in the postseason. An improvement from Stinson (6’3″, 287) in Year 3 should help Arizona remain strong up front into the winter.

30. Carolina (15-1)

– Need: WR (24th in pass yards)

– Free Agency Report: The Panthers placed the franchise tag on CB Josh Norman. DE Jared Allen retired. DE Charles Johnson was released and later re-signed. FB Mike Tolbert was re-signed. P Brad Nortman left in free agency for Jacksonville. Carolina signed DT Paul Soliai following his release from Atlanta, and they added CB Brandon Boykin, formerly of Pittsburgh.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: WR Kelvin Benjamin (2014 1st round)

Carolina QB Cam Newton turned in an MVP season not just for the numbers and wins he put up, but also because he did it after losing top WR Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL. Newton’s efficiency didn’t go into a sharp decline without his injured WR, unlike the 2014 NFL MVP, QB Aaron Rodgers. But that doesn’t mean that Carolina didn’t miss Benjamin, as none of Carolina’s WRs gained more than Ted Ginn’s 739 receiving yards in 2015. Benjamin gained 1,008 receiving yards as a rookie in 2014, tying TE Greg Olsen for the team lead, and Benjamin also added nine TDs. Benjamin struggled with drops and conditioning at times as a rookie, but he also showed a knack for making incredible receptions on the boundary. Carolina’s pass offense has room for improvement, and Benjamin’s return to health represents the margin.

31. Denver (12-4)

– Need: QB (28th in pass TD)

– Free Agency Report: The 2015 Broncos proved to be one of the best teams free agency ever built. Free agency has worked to take this squad apart in short order. OLB Von Miller was assigned the exclusive franchise tag, and his deal promises to be massive whenever it gets done. In the meantime, Denver lost backup QB Brock Osweiler, LG Evan Mathis, LT Ryan Harris, DE Malik Jackson, and ILB Danny Trevathan to unrestricted free agency. Denver also released RG Louis Vasquez and TE Owen Daniels, while TE Vernon Davis and RB Ronnie Hillman are free agents. Denver matched an offer sheet by Miami to retain RB C.J. Anderson. QB Peyton Manning retired, so the Broncos became only the second Super Bowl champion to lose their top two QBs the following season. Denver traded a conditional 2017 draft pick to Philadelphia to acquire QB Mark Sanchez. LT Russell Okung left Seattle to sign a very team-friendly deal with Denver, while former Kansas City RT Donald Stephenson signed a three-year deal with Denver.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: WR Cody Latimer (2014 2nd round)

Denver’s insistence on playing the worst QB in the NFL last season instead of a young, below average QB didn’t cost them the Super Bowl, but it did cost them Osweiler, who bolted for Houston in free agency. Denver now needs to draft a QB high, but whoever is throwing the ball next year, Latimer needs to put himself in better position to catch it. Latimer’s only career TD reception came in Osweiler’s first career start. The Broncos certainly have room for a WR to step up behind 1,000-yard duo Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, as no other WR gained more than Jordan Norwood’s 207 receiving yards. Latimer actually finished sixth among Denver WRs in receiving yards last season with only 59. Denver also has a hole at TE with Davis likely moving on along with Daniels, so Latimer has an opportunity in front of him. With only eight receptions in 22 career games, Latimer has a lot of work to do make it in Year 3 and justify being the 56th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft out of Indiana.

60. New England (12-4)

– Need: OL (19th in sacks allowed)

– Free Agency Report: First of all, New England was stripped of their 1st round pick for “violating the NFL policy on the integrity of the game (deflating footballs).” New England tried to counter that somewhat by trading DE Chandler Jones to Arizona in exchange for a 2016 2nd round pick (61st overall) and G Jonathan Cooper, the 7th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. New England signed former Rams DE Chris Long to help replace Jones. New England also signed former Chicago ILB Shea McClellin and former Bills WR Chris Hogan. WR Brandon LaFell was released after leading all WRs with targets without a TD (74); TE Scott Chandler was also released. New England traded a 2016 4th round pick to Chicago to acquire a 2016 6th round pick and TE Martellus Bennett. RB Donald Brown signed with New England after two seasons with San Diego. WR Nate Washington left Houston to sign with New England as well.

– Key 2013-2014 Draftee: C Bryan Stork (2014 4th round)

This one’s simple. The Patriots offensive line got QB Tom Brady beat up during the regular season, protected him extremely well against a Kansas City team that could barely play OLB Justin Houston, then saved their worst for the AFC Championship game against Denver. New England shuffled their offensive linemen every week, and ultimately, it cost line coach Dave DeGuglielmo his job. Stork had a difficult season, as a head injury cost him the first eight games of the season, and then he just joined the Patriots shuffle. New England won a Super Bowl with Stork as the starting C, but it’s unclear if the team sees him as a building block or another moving part going into his third season.

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