Cleveland Browns: Donte Whitner

BEREA, Ohio -- Donte Whitner plainly admitted what the naked eye showed: Monday's first practice in pads for the Cleveland Browns was uninspiring.

"Below standard," Whitner said.

But one day after it seemed like the Browns missed a memo about being fast and aggressive, they were active, noisy, aggressive and chippy. Guys went to the ground, pads were audible and taunts were present. It was much more spirited and energetic than it was 24 hours earlier.

Soon after linebacker Eric Martin taunted the offense after flinging Dion Lewis to the ground -- a supposed no-no -- Ben Tate flung the ball at Ahtyba Rubin when Rubin was too physical for Tate's taste.

"That's OK," Whitner said. "Throwing the football at someone never killed anybody."

It still led to a scrum and a dog pile that involved a large percentage of the team that didn't seem to bother anyone.

"That was a big [fight]," Whitner said. "That's how we like it really. We don't want any soft guys around here."

"You don't want one side of the ball to get bullied by the other," coach Mike Pettine said. "There has to be some pushback."

Martin Wallace got into two scuffles, one at the end of the dog pile and the other shortly after Lewis had been thrown to the ground again. Soon after the second flinging, Wallace was mixing it up with Armonty Bryant.

"It's the price of doing business," Pettine said.

Interesting, because a day earlier he had said he wanted his team to be competitive, not combative. And he had criticized safety Johson Bademosi for lowering his shoulder after a reception.

"Everybody thinks that fighting is bad, but fighting is not bad when guys have helmets on and you're not throwing punches," Whitner said. "It's guys getting frustrated, both sides of the ball getting heated, both sides of the ball getting physical. And that's what we want."

Pettine ended practice with a competitive drill. The offense has to move 20 yards, and it's best-of-5 to see if it makes it or if the defense wins. In this case, the defense dominated, winning three of four. As a result, the defense gets to wear orange "pride" jerseys on Thursday, which may not sound like much but is meaningful.

"Yeah it means something," Whitner said. "It kind of gives you the feel of a real football game. Toward the end of the game when the game is tight, your muscles get tight, you start to tense up a little bit, you understand that something is on the line and one play can cost you the game. It kind of gives you that feeling a little bit."

Clearly simply winning that competition matters. Pettine is not the first coach to institute a reward for a drill, either. Whitner said Jim Harbaugh had something similar in San Francisco.

"I know it's kind of weird," Whitner said, "but the winner had to run gassers. He wanted to see how bad you really wanted to win."
Defensive backs

Then: Joe Haden, Buster Skrine, T.J. Ward, Tashaun Gipson, Leon McFadden, Jordan Poyer, Julian Posey, Johnson Bademosi, Josh Aubrey (injured)

Now: Haden, Justin Gilbert, Skrine, Pierre Desir, McFadden, Poyer, Isaiah Trufant, Donte Whitner, Gipson, Bademosi, Aubrey.

The Browns signed Haden to a contract extension, drafted two corners and signed another in free agency. Oh, they also added a veteran safety, which should pretty much indicate what the new coaching staff thought of the old group. Haden is the bedrock of the defense, and if Gilbert can come in and play press-man coverage, Pettine will have his ideal pair. His defense is based on pressure that requires man coverage from corners. Gilbert has a ways to grow in camp, though. In the offseason results were mixed on him. At safety, Whitner takes over for Ward, bringing leadership and attitude. He's hard not to notice. Gipson is one of the more underrated players on the team. He and Whitner should complement each other well.

The positives: Whitner is a leader and a hitter, Haden should be a perennial Pro Bowler and Gipson is very talented. Add a fourth player and this group should be productive.

The negatives: The Browns seem to want Skrine to be a nickel back and cover the slot receiver, but that can't happen until Gilbert shows he can handle the starting job. The eighth pick in the draft is a key player on the team.

Previously: Quarterback, running back/fullback, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker.

Coming: Coaching staff, front office.
Ten takeaways from the third open practice of the Cleveland Browns' offseason work:
  1. Hoyer
    Quarterback Brian Hoyer continues to do everything right, yet finds himself fighting to get on the field for a full workout. As of this week, he is still limited in some team drills, permitted to take a shotgun or pistol snap but not permitted to face a rush. The Browns don’t want to take a chance on anyone accidentally rolling up on Hoyer's surgically repaired knee. Hoyer’s response: What difference does a month make? Because he will be doing just that in training camp. The Browns simply prefer to be cautious. Hoyer has no limitations physically, but is only seven months removed from surgery. “I just think from a risk-reward standpoint it just still doesn’t make a lot of sense to expose him at this point,” coach Mike Pettine said.
  2. The problem, of course, is that because he can’t take part in every drill full speed, Hoyer has to watch while the guy trying to take his job gets more chances. If the Browns had drafted any other quarterback -- Teddy Bridgewater, for example -- the interest and expectation for playing time would have changed completely. Hoyer would be the starter, and no one would argue. Every dynamic changes with Johnny Manziel in town.
  3. Austin
    Receiver Miles Austin got some individual work for the first time on Tuesday. The Browns are taking it slow with Austin since he was not working with a team before they signed him. If healthy, it would be tough to see Austin not being in the starting lineup.
  4. Ben Tate’s comments on the attention given Manziel being excessive given he has yet to play a down in the NFL were not incorrect, or outrageous. Tate’s right. Manziel is treated like a rock star, yet he’s never completed an NFL pass, much less won a game. Tate seemed most irritated at the media for the constant attention given Manziel, so it’s tough to say he was irritated at the quarterback. What this does is give the Browns a glimpse of what they will face in training camp, when the attention will be daily, constant and unending. It already has been. When the Avon Lake High School Chorale wasn't sending their operatic harmonies skyward, the dudes were asking about Manziel as they strolled the streets of Manhattan on a spring trip. In May TMZ followed Manziel in and out of a club. It's not going away. This is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, so the players best start preparing.
  5. Gordon
    Gordon
    The Browns really couldn’t say much about Josh Gordon's situation, but the wait on an announcement has to be wearing on everyone. His being pulled over recently is really a bizarre situation. Here is a guy facing a minimum one-year ban by the NFL who drives around a passenger carrying marijuana.
  6. People always ask how certain guys look in OTAs, and it’s really tough to tell. I once asked offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley what could be gleaned watching linemen in a minimcamp, and he simply said: “Nothing.” This is one step removed from minicamp. Consider safety Donte Whitner, who is all over the middle of the field, intercepting passes but often running past a receiver. Full-speed, in a game, that run past a receiver would turn into a lowered shoulder and a jarring hit. It didn’t stop Whitner from pointing out to a young receiver who didn’t make a catch as he ran near him that the receiver was scared. Tough business, this professional football.
  7. The Browns moved MarQueis Gray to fullback this week, and Pettine called him a true work-in-progress. This is an interesting move worth watching in camp. Gray has some unique abilities. He is a former quarterback who played tight end and ran the Wildcat last season. He can run, throw and catch. Chris Pressley was given a look-see at fullback, but he’s a straight downhill blocker. In the Browns' system, the fullback might have two duties -- block the outside shoulder of an end and then slide to a linebacker. Gray has done some of that as a tight end, and he could be a very reliable receiver. He’s a guy who gives coordinator Kyle Shanahan a ton of options that usually don’t exist at the fullback position. If it works.
  8. Manziel
    It’s foolish to make too much of three plays in an OTA practice, but the “whoa” and energy from the team as it watched Manziel’s cross-field throw 40 yards downfield was revealing. When he threw the ball, the first thought was, ‘what the heck?’ As it flew across the field, the second thought was, ‘where will this wind up?’ When it landed in tight end Jordan Cameron's hands just over two defenders, the eyebrows were raised and the players cheered. That was the first indication of what he can bring to the team. He can move, he can avoid the rush, and he can create something.
  9. The fact that he followed it by creating two more plays on the move cemented the impression. Now ... on the first throw he might have been sacked had it been full speed. But the throw itself was, as Nate Burleson said, “pretty sweet, huh?”
  10. This should be the focus when folks talk about “letting Johnny be Johnny,” not the off-field Hollywood-club nonsense. Manziel’s ability to make a play on the field has not yet been affected by his off-field life, and if it does then it’s an issue. Right now it’s a novelty. Letting Johnny be Johnny means letting him do what he did in college, and that is create plays and make something happen when nothing is there. The Browns have shown zero inclination to stamp out that facet of his game.
Ten takeaways from the second open practice of the Cleveland Browns' offseason work, with the caveat that any "concerns" should be minimized because it is May:
  1. Ray Farmer's statement that Brian Hoyer is the best quarterback on the Browns “by a substantial margin” should be taken seriously. Hoyer is better right now. He throws better, looks more confident, throws more accurately and seems more like the guy who has been around longer and in the offense longer. If the opener were in a week, Hoyer would start.
  2. Johnny Manziel makes enough throws to show he has ability. The highlight Tuesday was a 25-yard pass to the sideline that dropped right into the hands of Josh Gordon. The problem is that he doesn’t show the ability often enough.
  3. Manziel needs work. One short slant in five-on-five (no rush) would have hit the guard in the back. He also got under a throw that sailed well out of the end zone. Some of his fundamentals are all over the place -- the difference between him and Hoyer at times on footwork is marked.
  4. Manziel can get lost behind the line when dropping back. He also has a low trajectory on his throws, which means the line might have to create throwing lanes. This doesn’t mean he can’t succeed; Drew Brees can get lost as well. It’s just an observation.
  5. Donte Whitner said this about Manziel: “He looked good. Sometimes he stares some things down out there, and that’s part of being a young guy. He wants to know where to go with the football. But he’s getting better each and every day. He’s throwing the ball very, very accurately. He knows where his checkdown is at all times. ... He’s learning. He’s developing each and every day.”
  6. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil called Whitner a “follow me or else” leader. “There’s not a lot of them anymore,” O’Neil said. The best definition of being a professional is that it means doing your best when you feel your worst, and Whitner talked of learning early that a guy has to put in work when he’s tired or weary. He’s a guy that seems to really “get it.”
  7. O’Neil also said he wants Whitner to be a physical presence in the middle of the defense. In fact, he encouraged it. “We want to intimidate people,” O’Neil said, adding: “Every great defense in the NFL has an enforcer. So ... he’s ours.” It’s an interesting take in this era of concussions and concussion lawsuits. Because it shows the fine line between football being a fast, physical game and the danger and risks of playing that way.
  8. Whitner did not hide in the least from the “enforcer” role, saying that while teammate Tashaun Gipson is more focused on tackling than big hits, he is more focused on big hits with tackling second. “Thats my game,” Whitner said. “That’s what I like to do.” He added that those who don’t like to get hit shouldn’t play offense, and he’d “take 15 yards to instill some fear in somebody, but we’re going to do it the legal way."
  9. First-round pick Justin Gilbert missed part of the workout with an ice bag on his knee. Coach Mike Pettine said it was "just a bag of ice." Which is kind of like using the term "minor surgery." It’s only minor if it’s someone else. At any rate, Gilbert tweeted Wednesday that he was fine and would be back on the field for the next practice.
  10. Joel Bitonio seems to be setting up shop at left guard. Bitonio played tackle in college, and now gets to start his career between Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. Bitonio absolutely looks the part of a guard, and could be a welcome addition to the line.
Cleveland Browns fans complained the past few years as the team sat idly by while free agency raged. The Browns fiddled while free agents burned holes in owners’ pockets.

Or something like that.

Since the 2014 version of free agency began, the Browns have spent $55.8 million in guaranteed money.

That’s the highest total in the AFC North, and following the matching of Jacksonville’s offer to Alex Mack, ranks third in the league in guaranteed money spent since March 11.

Which means the Browns rank third to the Bucs and Broncos in guaranteed money, with most of it going to Mack ($18 million reported, though the number has not been confirmed), linebacker Karlos Dansby ($12 million) and safety Donte Whitner ($13 million). The Browns started free agency with a glut of cap space, and they’ve not been shy about using it.

And they’ve spend more than $50 million in guaranteed contracts without even addressing the quarterback position.

Second in the division in spending are the Baltimore Ravens at $36.3 million, though their total does not include re-signing Dennis Pitta just before free agency began. That signing brings the Ravens' guaranteed money total to $52.3 million -- still short of the Browns.

Most of Baltimore’s money went to Pitta and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe ($19 million).

Take away those two re-signings and Baltimore’s guaranteed total of $18 million is more like a team that feels good about itself.

Same for the Bengals, a team that has made the playoffs three years in a row and feels it’s close to something good. Cincinnati has spent just $7.3 million in guaranteed money, the fourth lowest total in the league.

Pittsburgh? The Steelers never go overboard in free-agent spending and this year is no different. Their total of $8.7 million is just ahead of Cincinnati.
Say this for Cleveland Browns fans: They speak clearly.

A week ago, we asked in a poll which of the team’s free agent signings was the best. The Browns had been very active, adding safety Donte Whitner, linebacker Karlos Dansby, running back Ben Tate, receiver Andrew Hawkins, cornerback Isaiah Trufant, and tight end Jim Dray. They have recently added offensive lineman Paul McQuistan as well.

Tate
Tate
“Huge,” receiver Josh Gordon said of the moves. “By tremendous leaps and bounds from previous years. I think it’s good for us to get veteran guys in there. Since I was there we didn’t have too many leadership-role kind of guys.”

Which might be important. The Browns had leaders, but they were homegrown leaders who didn’t challenge teammates as much as support them. That’s not a reflection of any kind on them or their leadership, just a statement on the way things were.

As for the most important signing, more than 4,500 voted, and they solidly favored Tate.

He received 63 percent of the vote, more than Whitner, Dansby and Hawkins combined.

Whitner finished second with 17 percent, Dansby had 11 and Hawkins nine.

The team’s lack of a running game in 2013 obviously wore on the fans as well as the coaching staff and media. And the addition of Tate -- probably the most exciting guy on the free agent market -- struck a chord.

Tate’s injury history probably affected his marketability, but he seemed enthusiastic about joining the Browns. Obviously fans feel the same way.

"Here's a guy that had four broken ribs and played through it," coach Mike Pettine told the media at the NFL meetings this week. "It wasn't until he had the fifth one broken that he couldn't go anymore. He broke and ankle. To me, that's more of a freak thing than anything else, but it's not like there are just chronic injuries there. And any time you bring in a guy that's got a chip on his shoulder, that's going to be in your favor."
There was no shortage of bravado as the Cleveland Browns introduced the three new members of their defense on Wednesday.

Dansby
Whitner
Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby and Isaiah Trufant were sincere and upbeat about joining the Browns, which is a positive. But there’s nothing that stirs the souls of Browns fans more than free-agent signings and draft picks. At least there won’t be until the Browns win. And Whitner, Dansby and Trufant all believe they can be the guys to change the vibe.

“You really have to change the culture,” Whitner said. “You have to change the mindset and you have to change the feel within the locker room.”

Dansby, an inside linebacker, said his forte is “raising the play of the guys around me.”

“That’s what I’ve been able to do everywhere I’ve been over my career,” he added. “That’s what I am known for. ... If I’m able to do that, then I have a lot of success as well.”

Dansby said he’s on a mission to be the best player in the league, and he came close last season. He added all he knows “how to do is win” and he believes he can double his numbers from 2013, which he called the best season of his career.

“Playing at the toughest position in the NFL, and you get a chance to dominate at that position, it says a lot about you as a person, as character, and as a player,” Dansby said.

Whitner talked about coming home; he played at Glenville High School in inner city Cleveland, and has family and two children in town. He also talked about his high hopes for the 2014 Browns, saying he and Dansby believe they can contribute to a dominant defense.

“That’s what we believe,” Whitner said. “That’s why we teamed up together.”

He said the key to defense is understanding the scheme, then playing physical. As he said, “Somebody is going to get hit.”

“Are you a defense that is feared by offenses around the National Football League?” he asked.

Revis trade doesn't materialize

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
11:43
AM ET
The Browns pursued cornerback Darrelle Revis via trade, but nothing was completed because Revis would not agree to a pay cut, according to several reports.

The Browns made an effort, though.

The odd thing is Revis may wind up taking a bigger pay cut (he would have made $13 million in Tampa Bay), but he'll be able to choose the team that pays him.

The Bucs are expected to release Revis this afternoon to avoid paying a $1.5 million roster bonus. At that point any team in the league can sign him, including the Browns. The chatter has him going to New England.

For the Browns the challenge in signing him increases due to the competition.

However, the Browns now can officially sell Revis on joining a potentially outstanding secondary that would include him, Joe Haden and Donte Whitner. It's been a long time since the Browns could sell something that appealing.
The Cleveland Browns did not play contract games in signing linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

No roster bonus games, no “it’s really a one-year deal” funny stuff. The Browns committed to both players, and spent $15 million in signing bonuses to do so -- $6 million for Dansby, $9 million for Whitner.

Here are the details:

Dansby was given $6 million to sign and will receive a $4 million guaranteed base salary this season. He’ll be paid $4 million in 2015 with half that guaranteed -- thus he signed for $12 million in guaranteed money. The final two years of the deal call for $5 million each year.

Total contract: Four years, $24 million.

Whitner received a $9 million signing bonus and a $2 million base salary this season that is guaranteed. He’ll be paid a $4.5 million base salary in 2015 that is guaranteed on the 15th day of the league year. Barring catastrophe, Whitner will be on the team both seasons, and thus is guaranteed $15.5 million.

Whitner's contract calls for $6.2 million in 2016 and $6.3 million in 2017.

Total contract: Four years, $28 million.

Clearly, since there are no machinations in the deals, the Browns believe in these guys.

And clearly, it’s understandable why they and their new teammates seem happy in this photo from Joe Haden’s Twitter feed (@JoeHaden23) that shows Jabaal Sheard, Josh Gordon and Haden welcoming them to the Browns:

 
Upgrades, replacement parts or both?

Did the Cleveland Browns take a step forward on the first day of free agency with their three signings, or did they merely bring in replacements for guys who left?

Maybe it depends on point of view.

The Browns lost an inside linebacker and receiver this offseason when they released D'Qwell Jackson and Davone Bess. They lost a safety when T.J. Ward signed with Denver as a free agent.

In free agency, they agreed with an inside linebacker in Karlos Dansby, agreed to an offer sheet with receiver Andrew Hawkins and agreed with safety Donte Whitner.

Out goes one, in comes another.

All the new guys are good players. Whitner and Dansby are aggressive guys who are not afraid to lead. Both are older than the guys they replaced, but both can play. Hawkins is younger than Bess, and (assuming the Bengals do not match the offer) is faster, more explosive and more dependable than Bess, who developed a good case of the dropsies in Cleveland.

Are the Browns better than they were on Tuesday? The team would say yes, that they have added explosive, aggressive players who can make impact plays on defense, in the passing game and on special teams. Too, the players signed -- while not "big-ticket" guys -- are good, dependable players. They are far better than just "guys" who fill the roster. They can play, and that's good.

But the argument can be made that because the Browns lost players at each of the positions, the team merely has filled holes. The players may be better, but it's not like upgrading from a college backup to Tom Brady. The two defensive guys lost contributed to the Browns the past few years. The new guys may be better, but they are better by degrees, not leaps and bounds. Still, by that measurement, the Browns improved. But they won't make significant steps forward until they add players to the mix, not remake the mix.

If the Browns take what they've done and add another good player or two, they will have taken a step forward. The draft awaits, and the Browns have more picks than some teams do in two years.

The first day of free agency was a start. It wasn't merely treading water. But it also wasn't a huge splash. It was a start.

But for a team that has a bunch of false starts the past few years, a start is something.
From the Boss to The Hit Man. Or something like that.

Ward
Whitner
The Cleveland Browns chose not to sign T.J. Ward before he hit the free-agent market, then agreed to terms with Donte Whitner to replace him. Both are high-impact hitters known more for physical play than coverage, but in Whitner the Browns may have upgraded.

Which is saying something because Ward -- whose Twitter handle is @BossWard43 -- was pretty good in 2013.

Whitner -- who calls himself "Hitner" -- is a Cleveland native, a product of Ted Ginn at Glenville High School. He's also an Ohio State guy.

He's leaving a team that's been to the last three NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl for one that hasn't won more than six games in any of the last six seasons. To agree to join the Browns he was given a reported four-year, $28 million deal, an average of $7 million per season -- or $2 million less than Buffalo's Jairus Byrd wanted.

Whitner has been in the league eight seasons but is only 28 -- one year older than Ward. He's joining his third team after playing for Buffalo and San Francisco.

Though he's similar to Ward, most NFL folks feel the move is an upgrade because Whitner is slightly better in coverage. He has 10 interceptions in eight seasons, while Ward has five in four. Whitner has been to two Pro Bowls, Ward one.

The move may not have a dramatic impact on the Browns because one safety is replacing another. But it does give the Browns an aggressive safety who is quick to the ball -- though one whose aggressiveness has led him to occasional mistakes.

In signing Whitner and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, the Browns replaced departed players, so in a sense they're treading water -- and getting older in both spots.

But the team likes the aggressiveness Dansby and Whitner bring and believe they are upgrades.
Jairus Byrd wants a contract worth $9 million per season.

That's the word from ESPN.com's Miami Dolphins writer James Walker, a gentleman who once covered the Cleveland Browns for the Columbus Dispatch.

At that salary, $9 million per season would put Byrd in the rarified air of the highest-paid safeties in the league.

Want to pay a safety that much? Want to let T.J. Ward go because you wouldn't pay him $8 million a season (an assumption) and pay another guy's player more? This is the struggle in free agency, and it's what the Browns must decide as they wade into what owner Jimmy Haslam called a crucial offseason with a boatload of salary cap space.

Free agency is often fool's gold, but the right guy for the right team makes sense. That being said, this free-agency period is one of the weakest in memory. Especially as more and more good players re-signed with their teams (Seattle's Michael Bennett and Green Bay's Sam Shields the past few days.

The Browns have to decide if Byrd is that guy, and reading their intentions is difficult. Leaks from Berea have been few and far between recently, and GM Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine have kept their intentions close to the shoulder pads.

Byrd is logically assumed to be a target based on his past relationship with Pettine. But the past couple days, rumors of Donte Whitner being a target also have surfaced.

Ward will test the free-agent waters, and numerous teams have interest in him -- including Denver, where the guy who drafted Ward (Tom Heckert) works for John Elway.

Whitner is a Cleveland/Ohio State guy. Byrd played in Buffalo a year ago, where Pettine was the defensive coordinator. He's a good player, a ballhawk who turns the ball over. That's a valuable guy.

But a $9-million-a-year guy?

Former sports agent Joel Corry wrote on CBSSports.com that Byrd might command $8.5 million per year, Ward close to $8 million and running back Ben Tate $6 million.

Some of this is inflation. The salary cap goes up, player salaries go up. It's a natural offshoot. Too, these contracts and their average per year can involve fuzzy math.

A guy may sign a three-year, $21 million contract that pays him $3 million this year and next and $15 million in the third year. That third year will never happen, of course, and it's never meant to happen. But it does give the player an ego boost, and it allows the agent to “sell” the deal to other potential clients. “See, I just got that guy $21 million!”

In reality, he got the guy two years, and $6 million.

What's interesting is that given all the Browns' needs, safety has been the hot position they're rumored to be addressing.

A safety over a running back or receiver would be an interesting way to prioritize things.
There is no clear consensus on where the Cleveland Browns should turn in free agency.

That’s the word from 1,700-some voters, who recognize that the Browns have several needs and focusing on any one of them is not easy.

Twenty-nine percent said the emphasis should be on inside linebacker.

Twenty-five percent said a guard.

Twenty-three percent said a running back.

That’s nearly 80 percent of the vote for those three positions.

Receiver and safety brought up the rear, with nine percent and 14 percent.

It’s interesting that safety came in so low. Many rumors as the start of free agency approaches have the Browns targeting Jairus Byrd of Buffalo or Donte Whitner of San Francisco.

Whitner’s name has bubbled recently. Byrd’s has been out there since the end of the Renaissance. Both could be targeted, but the Browns have kept a tight lid on what they might or might not do.

Voters clearly felt the release of D'Qwell Jackson catapulted inside linebacker to a top priority. It’s logical, given the struggles of Craig Robertson a year ago as well.

The voting favoring a guard and running back also are logical. The Browns lack a second guard to go with John Greco, and they need a legitimate running back for the offense. At present they do not have one.

What’s easy to see is the Browns have a lot of needs.

How many they can fill in free agency without upsetting their salary structure is the first big challenge of new General Manager Ray Farmer’s tenure.

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