AFC West: Oakland Raiders

Jack Del RioJustin Sullivan/Getty ImagesNew coach Jack Del Rio knows adding quality free agents is a key to turning around the franchise.
The Reggie McKenzie era with the Oakland Raiders is at a crossroads.

McKenzie, entering his fourth season as the team’s general manager, is either going to start winning and prove he deserves to keep his job as the Raiders’ primary football decision-maker since the death of legendary owner Al Davis, or he will eventually lose his job.

A key to McKenzie’s fate is the upcoming free agency period, which begins March 10. The Raiders could have upwards of $60 million in salary-cap room -- among the most in the NFL. It should be enough to help this team with many needs, (McKenzie recently said his checklist is "big") rebuild what is widely considered one of the most meager rosters in the NFL.

The Raiders have been connected to free agents such as Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb, Kansas City center Rodney Hudson and Denver defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, among others.

However, the NFL is taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to Oakland’s ability to add impact players. Last year, Oakland had a record amount of salary-cap room (almost $70 million). Yet, Oakland let left tackle Jared Veldheer and pass-rusher Lamarr Houston walk, and it didn’t sign any top talent. Instead, Oakland spent its money on aging veterans. Though a couple, such as Donald Penn and Justin Tuck helped, the free-agent class as a whole was a bust, and the Raiders went from 4-12 to 3-13. Essentially, the Raiders wasted their cache of cap room.

The Raiders seem bent on changing that this year. McKenzie, who recently said he will be looking for "some real players" this year, added he hopes to sign multiple starting-quality players.

He said a key to selling the Raiders to perspective free agents is the hope of building young players, such as quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack, into stars.

"We’re in the recruiting stage. Free agency, money, is major recruiting," McKenzie said. "It’s like colleges, [players] want to see what you got. They want to see where we play, where we practice, where we meet. It’s all important. What city you’ll be in. Highlight the positives, and that’s a part of it. And really, it gets to the point where they talk amongst themselves and everybody is positive. The energy is all about that, it’s all about the vibe that they get when they’re around current players. They see each other throughout, where they train, where they live. It’s up to us to try and help facilitate that.

"I’m going to try and go after good players. I don’t think last year, I felt like we need more role players. Now we’re looking for some guys who can come in and be impact (players)."

New Oakland coach Jack Del Rio is confident the Raiders will have success in free agency. In fact, it seems like he’s counting on it. Del Rio, who thinks the renovation of the team’s facility is a step in the right direction, said they are all on on the same page: The Raiders know they have to spend money to get better.

"Those are things I talked about in the interview process that were important, and they’ve been followed up with actual commitment of capital, which I’m excited about," Del Rio said. "So as you go into this phase of free agency and acquiring players, we have cap space and we have a new staff full of teachers. We have a young quarterback. We have a good, young man off the edge in Khalil Mack. We’ve got a good left tackle. We’ve got corners. The things that we need to get started, we have. So, now we have to start adding good, quality people that are fired up to be part of the Raiders. I’m excited about part of that process that we’re just getting into."

The NFL agent community is taking a measured approach because of the Raiders’ recent history of losing and odd free-agent moves.

"I think Oakland will have to overpay to get guys," one agent said. "There’s California’s high taxes, the losing, the poor facility, the bad stadium, the question of the team’s future home. All of those are reasons why the Raiders will need to be at the top of the market to attract guys."

However, another agent thinks the Raiders could be close to becoming attractive in free agency.

"Yes, Oakland is a tough sell, but if I had one of the top guys this year, I’d listen, because they have the room and the need," the agent said. "Oakland just has to convince that first big free agent, then it will get easier. Oakland is not a dream destination for guys, but if they could get a Ndamukong Suh to come, things will change in a hurry. The Raiders have to pull the trigger on a big name. They have to."

For example, there has been league conjecture that believes the Raiders will have to pay Cobb an average of $12 million a year if he gets to free agency. That is considered an overpay, but perhaps it will needed.

Oakland will have motivation to spend as well. It needs to get close to reaching the league’s minimum spending floor of 89 percent of the cap in cash from 2013 to 2016. The Raiders will likely need to spend big in the next two years to get there. The Raiders are aware of the many reasons they need to score in free agency. Now, it’s time to see if they can execute.
NFL free agency begins in 12 days and the Oakland Raiders will be flush with salary-cap room for the second straight year.

According to ESPN resources, the Raiders are currently set to have $53,280,995 in salary-cap room when free agency starts, and Oakland can add substantial cap room if they cut several veterans. However, they could hold on to some into free agency because they are trying to reach the NFL’s cash/cap threshold minimum.

Regardless of the approach, Oakland will have plenty to spend. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Raiders have the fourth-most cap room in the league, and just $1.5 million from having the second-most cap room in the league. Overall, the league is flush with cap room. Ten teams have at least $32 million in cap room according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Thus, there will be competition for the top free agents.
Hawk
Here are some thoughts of why it would be beneficial and not beneficial for the Oakland Raiders to sign inside linebacker A.J. Hawk. He was cut Wednesday by the Green Bay Packers after nine seasons.

PROS

Familiarity: Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie was with the Packers when they took Hawk with the No. 5 overall pick in 2006. McKenzie hasn’t had a heavy reliance on former Packers in his tenure in Oakland, but he isn’t afraid of going to that well, either. McKenzie surely has fond memories of Hawk. They won a Super Bowl together and Hawk is a leader. Because Nick Roach has not been cleared from a concussion he suffered in August that cost him the entire 2014 season and his future is in major doubt, the Raiders need a middle linebacker. It could be worth McKenzie’s while to investigate Hawk, who has been a 3-4 inside linebacker in Green Bay’s scheme. However, he was a 4-3 middle linebacker in his first three NFL seasons, so he’d fit Oakland’s system.

Still productive: Hawk is tough and durable. He has missed just two games in nine NFL seasons. Pairing him with outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Sio Moore would give Oakland a solid group of linebackers, playing for former NFL linebackers in head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. Hawk had 89 tackles last season. He could help in 2015.

CONS

Short-term answer: Hawk is 31 and he has lost some speed. The word is he is on the back nine. The Raiders might be better off going for a young player at the position who could grow with Mack and Moore. Some possible free-agent targets include Denver’s Nate Irving, Cincinnati’s Rey Maualuga, Tampa Bay’s Mason Foster and Seattle’s Malcolm Smith. Going that route might be better in the long run.

Would continue bad trend: The Raiders squandered great salary-cap space last year by signing older, declining players to short-term deals. It didn’t help. Oakland needs to sign younger, roster-building players. Signing Hawk would be a sign that McKenzie is not over last year’s poor habits.

Conclusion: While Hawk could help Oakland now, I’d lean on taking a pass. I think the Raiders could find a younger option at middle linebacker who could give the same production as Hawk now and help down the road.

In other free-agent news, the Eagles are cutting guard Todd Herremans. He could be a player to keep an eye for Oakland. He was part of the Eagles’ fast-paced offense that new Oakland offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who was Philadelphia’s quarterbacks coach last season, is adopting. Plus, Oakland is looking for a guard. However, Herremans is 32 and has an injury history.
The Oakland Raiders have a lot of reasons to spend most of their salary cap room in the next two years.

Of course, a primary reason is their rebuilding roster needs help at several spots. But, as the NFL Player’s Association pointed out this week in an email, Oakland has some to spend as part of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.

NFL teams, spanning the 2013-16 season, most spend at least 89 percent of the salary cap in cash. According to the NFLPA, the Raiders have spent 80.19 of the cap in cash with half of that time expired. Thus, they have to spend nearly all of their cap room in the next two years to meet the threshold. If by the end of the 2016 season Oakland doesn’t meet the cash/cap threshold, they will owe all of their players on the roster at the end of the 2016 a check to make up for the remaining balance.

Thus, it would be a waste of cap room. The rule was implemented to force teams to use their cash and cap instead of sitting on it.

Oakland, which used a large chunk of the cap last year on aging, unproductive players, could have upwards of $60 million in salary-cap room. Most teams do spend most of their cap each year. For the next two seasons, Oakland needs to be one of those teams.

One bummer for the Raiders is they can’t use any of their cap room in the next two years on potential young stars in quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack. By rule, players can’t get new contracts in their first three seasons in the league.
After talking with several scouts, the consensus is that the Oakland Raiders' Derek Carr would be the third quarterback taken in the 2015 draft behind Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.

Carr started every game last season after being the No. 36 overall pick. He was the fourth quarterback taken in 2014.

Just for kicks, below is a look how Carr’s combine numbers from last year compared to those of Winston and Mariota from this year. The bottom line is Carr is smaller than this year’s top prospects -- both Winston and Mariota might be top-five picks -- but Carr seemed to be in the middle when it came to the athletic measures at the combine.

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AFC West musical chairs at center?

February, 24, 2015
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Last week, Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was non-committal about whether the team will re-sign center Stefen Wisniewski.

McKenzie said that it was too early to tell if Wisniewski, an offensive line anchor since being picked in the second round in 2011, will re-sign before free agency or if he will hit the market when it starts March 10.

Wisniewski
“I don’t know yet,” McKenzie said last Wednesday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. “Our guys have talked to him and we’ve been talking to Wiz since last summer. But we’re going to see how it plays out. There’s always a right price to everything. Everybody sees value differently. We’ll see how it goes. And it’s not just with Wiz, it’s with every free agent, restricted guys, even future free agents from other teams. They’re going to have their own value from what they perceive they deserve if it fits what we want.”

There has been some recent speculation that Wisniewski and the Raiders aren’t close on a deal and he will test the market. If so, he could quickly be gobbled up.

If the Raiders move on from Wisniewski, a top target could be Kansas City center Rodney Hudson. Hudson is considered one of the best centers available and could fit in the Raiders’ plan of using more no-huddle offense. However, Hudson could be very expensive. Centers normally aren’t super high-priced. Pittsburgh’s Maurkice Pouncey averages $8.8 million, making him the highest-paid center. Hudson could potentially command a deal in the $7-8 million range, while Wisniewski is expected to fall in the $6 million range.

The Raiders are expected to have about $60 million in salary-cap room, so if they think Hudson is a better fit and opt for him over Wisniewski, they could afford it. If that happens, there could be some criticism around the league, as it would mean Oakland failed to keep/opted to let go yet another high draft choice.

If Wisniewski hits the open market, ESPN’s Adam Caplan reported Denver could be interested. Clearly, the movement at center will be among the early intrigue in free agency.

Raiders mock draft: Take 2

February, 23, 2015
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We have reached a major draft season milestone by reaching the end of the NFL combine. There are still two-plus months to go of draft scrutiny before the Oakland Raiders execute the No. 4 overall pick on April 30. There are Pro Days, meetings, and visits to come. I’m sure ideas will change, but for now, here is my second Raiders’ mock draft pick based on what we have already learned:

Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper: Cooper was my pick when I did my first Raiders’ mock draft Jan. 16. I know it’s boring. But I think Cooper is the right fit. Of course, it’s fluid and it can all change. I think there are four possibilities for Oakland. Take USC defensive end Leonard Williams if he’s available. I don’t think he will be. So, he’s off the board. Trading the pick is an option. But it’s not one in this mock. So in this mock, it’s either Cooper or West Virginia receiver Kevin White. White had a blazing 40-yard dash time of 4.35 at the combine and is rising up the boards. Some teams will prefer White to Cooper, who also did well at the combine. But for now, I’m sticking with Cooper because of his polish. He seems like a sure bet, and he’s just 20. I don’t see the downside here. But, of course, it’s February. It’s subject to change.
INDIANAPOLIS – Amari Cooper -- considered the top available receiver in the NFL draft -- said he didn’t know whether he will meet with the Oakland Raiders at the NFL combine.

It doesn’t matter.

Cooper
The Raiders are well aware of Cooper and will surely catch up with the top-notch receiver from Alabama at some point. They might connect April 30, when Oakland selects with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft. The Raiders badly need a receiver, and Cooper is a top candidate to be their choice. Cooper told reporters he believes he will be worthy of being a top choice.

“I certainly want to be the best receiver, not just in this class, but overall,” said Cooper, who won’t turn 21 until June. “I'm going to work hard to try to be that.”

Cooper is known for being polished and running complex routes. He talked as if he is prepared for the advanced NFL game.

“You don't want to give the defensive back any signals about what route you're going to run,” Cooper said. “Every time I run a route, I try to make it seem like I'm running a different route than I'm actually running so I can get open. ... I take good pride in the way I release off the line and coming out of my breaks. That's really the only two ways you can get open. I think that's probably what would separate me from someone else.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Raiders decide it’s what separates Cooper from everyone else.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Earlier this week, Scouts Inc.’s Steve Muench mentioned Florida pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. as a possibility for the Oakland Raiders if they move down a bit in the first round.

After attending Fowler’s press briefing at the NFL combine Friday, I can see Fowler shooting up draft boards if he continues to show well on the football side of the business. Personality counts, and Fowler is full of charisma. I wouldn’t mind working a locker room that this kid is in.

“I’m very loose,” Fowler said. “You don’t want to be all kinds of grumpy and rude. You don’t want to be that. You get wrinkles from all that stuff. I’m not trying to get that."

The Raiders need a pass-rusher and Fowler made it clear he can fit in any system at 6-foot-3 and 261 pounds. He played multiple positions at Florida and he projects as a 4-3 defensive end, where the Raiders have a glaring need. He said his main objective is to “stress out offensive coordinators."

He said he believes he can rush the passer, go in coverage and even “mess with receivers.”

“I can play anywhere. I can play some linebacker to D-end to edge rusher. I can do a lot for a team,” Fowler said. “I can do it all, some linebacker, some defensive end, I can do both. I can rush really good and I can drop back in coverage.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- While most NFL coaches are scrambling to get as much information on draft prospects as possible, Sal Sunseri is beyond familiar with the 2015 draft class.

Sunseri, the new linebackers coach of the Oakland Raiders, has been coaching in the central draft breeding ground for the past five years. From 2009-11, Sunseri was the assistant head coach and linebackers coach at Alabama. He was the defensive coordinator at Tennessee in 2012 and he spent the past two seasons as the defensive line coach at Florida State.

Coaching in the SEC and being part of a national championship team with the Seminoles means Sunseri was coaching at the highest level of college football and he is well versed with the best prospects in this draft. Sunseri also is known as an excellent recruiter, so his net is wide ranging.

Not only will Sunseri help the Raiders in their appraisal of players from the three schools he recently coached, but he also knows the offensive talent of all the opponents he had to prepare for in recent years.

I’m sure the Raiders will lean on Sunseri’s direct knowledge as they maneuver through the draft process.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Should Derek Carr and Khalil Mack start shopping for beachfront property in Southern California?

Not quite yet. The cornerstones of the Raiders still belong to Oakland. But the franchise officially told the NFL world what has been abundantly clear beneath the surface -- the Raiders are willing to go anywhere they can get a new stadium, even if it means teaming with one of their mortal enemies.

In an unexpected announcement, the San Diego Chargers and Raiders issued a joint statement (it came first from the Chargers, though) late Thursday night, saying they have collaborated on a proposal to build a privately financed, $1.7 billion stadium in Carson, California, that the teams would share if they relocate to the Los Angeles area. In the statement, both teams said they are committed through this season to getting a new stadium in their current cities.

This is all elaborate posturing until further notice. We all know both teams are unhappy in their stadiums. Both teams have complained for years. Stadium news truly doesn’t become news until proposals become concrete. We’re far from that point.

However, this development is noteworthy because the Raiders have a plan that would move them out of Oakland. We have moved beyond the point of complaining about the pitiful stadium situation in that city.

If the cities of Oakland and San Diego are truly on the clock until the end of the year, there might be some trouble. But there’s too much involved here to make it that simple.

I will say this: I highly doubt Oakland can figure out by the end of this year a happy solution to keep the Raiders. It would be one of the greatest comebacks in Oakland Raiders' history. So, if team owner Mark Davis is serious and he drops Oakland as an option when the calendar flips to Jan. 1, 2016 -- then sure, see ya, Raiders.

But again, there are a lot of logistics to go through.

More than anything, Thursday’s joint announcement was a loud message. It was a message to Oakland, San Diego, the NFL and to the St. Louis Rams. The city of St. Louis also has its own proposal, and the Rams have a deep-pocketed owner in Stan Kroenke. He wants Los Angeles. St. Louis wants a team. Proposals abound with the Rams.

The Raiders and Chargers wanted to get in the picture and remind everyone -- first and foremost, the NFL -- that they want in, too. This is still a race that is in the early stages.

But the Raiders just told everyone they plan on participating in the chase until they get a stadium -- somewhere.

The Raiders are so serious, they would be willing to break tradition. If sharing a beautiful new cash cow of a stadium in L.A. with the Chargers means they will have to move to the NFC West, the Raiders probably would.

But this isn’t about tradition. This is about business and survival. If anything, this proposal is proof the Raiders mean business -- they will play anywhere and partner with anyone. Now, we just have to see if it goes anywhere.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Dan Quinn and Ken Norton Jr. often would spend time talking about competition and increasing the level of their players.

Now, both are getting the opportunity to affect a larger group of players. Quinn is now the head coach in Atlanta after being the defensive coordinator in Seattle. Norton is now the defensive coordinator in Oakland after being the Seahawks’ linebackers coach. At the NFL combine, Quinn said he has no doubt that Norton will transition well from position coach to coordinator.

“We talked about it a lot,” Quinn said. “He will be ready.”

Quinn said Norton’s new players in Oakland will enjoy how hard Norton works to pull out their competitive best. Norton, who won three Super Bowl rings in a 13-year NFL career as a linebacker, is known for being a vocal leader.

“He got so much out of his linebackers,” Quinn said. “Now, he will be able to do it with an entire unit. ... He’ll do great.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard at the NFL combine on Thursday:

1. Florida State linemen coming west? There is more to Florida State’s draft class than quarterback Jameis Winston and the Raiders will likely be closely studying it. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay is high on Seminoles center Cameron Erving and guard Tre' Jackson. It will be interesting to see if the Raiders agree. They have needs on the interior offensive line. Center Stefen Wisniewski is a free agent and there is a chance he will not return. Oakland is moving Austin Howard to tackle, so they have a need at guard. McKenzie has mentioned he thinks he can get interior line help in the draft. Does this automatically mean the Raiders will be drafting one of these Seminoles? Of course not, but they very likely will be spending some pre-draft time on them.

Thomas
2. Silver-and-black Julius? Unless the Raiders own free agency and snag Ndamukong Suh or Terrance Knighton re-signs with the Broncos, the odds of Oakland filling their defensive tackle needs by signing Knighton look good. However, he might not be the only Broncos player to reunite with Jack Del Rio in Oakland. The buzz around the combine Thursday was that Denver tight end Julius Thomas might be heading to Oakland. These are not reports, just speculation. Yes, we’ve heard the talk before and it doesn’t mean anything until it happens when free agency starts March 10. But there is a strong feeling here by some NFL folks. The dots are there to be connected. Thomas is likely not returning to Denver. The Raiders badly need offensive help and have the cap room. Thomas is from Northern California.

3. Dorial Green-Beckham begins image repair process: If he weren't saddled with character issues, Green-Beckham would possibility be a top-five prospect and a real possibility for Oakland at No. 4. Instead, it seems like Alabama’s Amari Cooper is the receiver the Raiders will be considering at No. 4. Because of his issues, Green-Beckham could be taken in the 25-35 range. If available, I could see the Raiders taking him early in the second round. He is a huge target at 6-foot-6 and has been compared to Lions star Calvin Johnson. Green-Beckham met the media Thursday and politely answered questions about several mistakes he made. He said all the right things. It was good practice because I bet there are 32 NFL teams that will have similar questions for him this week.

4. Raiders talk to DeVante Parker; what does it mean? Not a whole lot. That’s why the NFL teams and the draft prospects are braving the frigid Indianapolis weather. Teams talk to many, many players this week. But they have a limited number of draft picks. By the time the entire draft process is over, Oakland coaches and brass will probably meet and greet 100-plus prospects. It’s only fitting that Parker -- a possible top-15 pick -- is one of them. The Louisville receiver is dynamic. I understand why Raiders fans got excited when he said Thursday he had talked to the team. If the Raiders trade back in the first round, Parker could be a target. It only makes sense they investigate him.
INDIANAPOLIS -- While he wouldn't exactly pinpoint his precise free-agency plan, Oakland Raiders' general manager Reggie McKenzie made one thing clear: he is looking to get better once free agency starts March 10.

"We need to get stronger," McKenzie said Wednesday. "We're going to go after some real players.

Wisniewski
The Raiders may have $60 million in salary-cap room. Last year, the Raiders had more than $60 million and signed aging players to short-term deals. The Raiders finished 3-13 in 2014.

McKenzie was somewhat vague when talking about his team's plans because he doesn't want to give anything away. Oakland will likely be players for some top-of-the-line free agents, but he also wants get more than a few quality players.

"Now we're looking for some guys who can come in and be impact (players)," McKenzie said. "I got a big checklist. ... We need players. What I won't do is pinpoint one position and regardless of how the draft falls, regardless, if you just target one position and I'm going to get that position. Any position we have a chance to upgrade we're going to do it. We're going after starter-type guys."

As for the top in-house free agent, Stefen Wisniewski, McKenzie said talks are ongoing. He didn't give any hints of where it's heading, but there have been some indications that Wisniewski, may indeed, hit free agency and leave. If Wisniewski, a second-round pick in 2011, doesn't re-sign, it will continue a trend of young starters leaving Oakland after their rookie contract. McKenzie is concerned about that.

"It's going to be case by case. Nobody's going to make me push the panic button to overvalue a player," McKenzie said. "That's where you get into trouble."

McKenzie also Matt Schaub could stay as the backup quarterback. McKenzie said anything could happen, but he is comfortable keeping Schaub even at a fairly high rate. Schaub, who Oakland traded for last year to be the starter but who was beaten out by Derek Carr in August, has a salary cap number of $5.5 million this season. If he stays, Schaub could take a pay reduction.

As for safety Tyvon Branch, McKenzie said the team will monitor the situation and be in touch with his agent. Branch has a cap number of $9.6 million this season after missing most of the past two season due to injury. McKenzie said that is a concern. If I had to guess, the Raiders will likely move on or give Branch a major pay cut.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Coach Jack Del Rio and general manager Reggie McKenzie met with the media on Wednesday at the NFL combine. Here's what we learned about the Oakland Raiders:

It's time for young cornerbacks to step up: McKenzie made it clear the Raiders are done with the parade of veteran stop gaps at cornerback. The yearly parade of new, short-term starters is over, or, at least, McKenzie hopes. He said 2014 starters, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, will hit the market. They were both signed to one-year deals last year. McKenzie wants to see youngsters DJ Hayden, TJ Carrie and Keith McGill all take the next step. A cornerback will likely be added, but Oakland wants to give the young cornerbacks a chance to show they can be the long-term answer. I like the idea. All three can make an impact.

More running back help is coming: McKenzie said he wants to bring in a running back. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave likes to run and running will be a big part of what the Raiders do in their new, fast-paced offense. I could see a veteran being brought in to work with Latavius Murray, who still needs seasoning. I'm guessing free-agent running back Darren McFadden will not return in free agency.

The Raiders love their young quarterback: Del Rio called Derek Carr a cornerstone player coming out of his rookie season and then labeled Carr a "top flight" quarterback. I thought Del Rio was going to fall off the podium when someone asked if Carr was going to be the starter this season. Really? McKenzie said he likes the way Carr is adjusting to the new coaching staff and system. He said Carr has no trouble with the new offensive “lingo.”

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