1 Question Every NFL Team Must Answer in Offseason Workouts
Now that the draft is in the rearview mirror and the free-agency excitement has slowed to a trickle, it's time for NFL teams to begin the important tasks of evaluating rosters and answering questions.
For most teams, organized team activities have already begun.
While this point in the NFL calendar might not be the most exciting time for football fans, it is an extremely important period for the folks who must actually piece together a complete team in time for the regular season in early September.
As is the case every offseason, some teams have more questions that need answering than others. However, each team has questions that must be resolved before the regular season kicks off, and ideally these questions can be answered prior to the preseason.
We will examine each NFL team and identify one big question that will need to be answered during OTAs and minicamps.
Has the team done enough to improve its run defense?
While the pass defense of the Chicago Bears was at least respectable in 2013 (ranked 15th, allowing 233.1 yards per game), the run defense was atrocious.
Chicago ranked dead last in the league in run defense last season, allowing a whopping 161.4 yards per game on the ground. This likely prompted the Bears to take steps to remake the defensive front this offseason.
In free agency, Chicago said goodbye to Julius Peppers and Henry Melton and hello to defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen. The team also selected defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third rounds of the draft, respectively.
The Bears will now have to decide if their offseason changes have done enough to improve their on-field performance in the run-defense department. If not, other changes may be on the horizon.
Is rookie running back Jeremy Hill ready to take over for BenJarvus Green-Ellis?
For the second consecutive year, the Cincinnati Bengals used a second-round draft pick on a running back.
This year's pick was former LSU standout Jeremy Hill, a 6'1", 233-pound bruiser who looks to be a nice power complement to 2013 rookie sensation Giovani Bernard.
However, Hill may have to wait to take that role from veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is under contract for one more season. Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com believes that Cincinnati may be willing to allow Green-Ellis to make the decision on whether to stay in a reduced role or to seek a starting job elsewhere.
If Hill can outperform Green-Ellis early in the offseason, the team may consider moving to dump the veteran and his $2.3 million salary.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Can Mike Glennon wrestle the starting job away from Josh McCown?
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed free-agent quarterback Josh McCown earlier this offseason, head coach Lovie Smith labeled the journeyman as the starter in the ensuing press conference.
At the time, that declaration seemed to put an end to any potential competition between McCown and second-year signal-caller Mike Glennon.
However, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht recently indicated that the team is comfortable with Glennon as a potential long-term quarterback option in an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
This means that Glennon might have an opportunity to steal the starting job by the time the regular season rolls around. Either way, Buccaneers fans should feel comfortable with their team's quarterback situation.
McCown proved last season that he has what it takes to be a viable starter, passing for 1,829 yards and 13 scores with a passer rating of 109.0 in eight appearances. Glennon would likely have to show he can be just as efficient to compete for the starting job in camp.
Is Sammy Watkins ready to be a No. 1 NFL receiver?
The Buffalo Bills will be looking for second-year quarterback EJ Manuel to makes big strides this offseason. Fortunately for Manuel, the team got him some help in the form of former Clemson star Sammy Watkins.
The big question now is whether or not Watkins can instantly step in and become a go-to playmaker for Manuel.
Considering the Bills gave up first- and fourth-round picks in next year's draft in order to move up five spots in May's draft to secure Watkins, the team hopes so.
Buffalo doesn't appear to have a ton of other potential No. 1 options after shipping Stevie Johnson to San Francisco shortly after drafting Watkins.
The team's top two receivers last season other than Johnson were tight end Scott Chandler and running back Fred Jackson. If Watkins struggles to adapt to the pro game, Buffalo might be forced to consider potential free-agent or trade options.
What is the backup plan if Chris Harris isn't ready to go Week 1?
The Denver Broncos lost cornerback Chris Harris for the remainder of the postseason when he suffered a torn ACL in a playoff game against the San Diego Chargers.
According to NFL.com's Marc Sessler, Harris plans to be ready for the regular-season opener. However, the Broncos need to formulate a plan to deal with the possibility that he won't be.
With free-agent addition Aqib Talib likely locking down one starting corner spot, the other may go to rookie first-round pick Bradley Roby out of Ohio State. This could move second-year cornerback Kayvon Webster into the nickel role, though Harris will probably have an opportunity to reclaim one of the starting spots once he is back to 100 percent.
At any rate, the Broncos pass defense will probably be better off than the 27th-ranked unit (254.4 yards per game allowed) that Denver fielded a year ago.
Can anyone emerge as a No. 1 receiver?
The Cleveland Browns do not yet know the fate of wideout Josh Gordon, who reportedly faces a one-year band for violation of the league's drug policy.
However, the Browns need to begin auditions for the No. 1 receiver role now to prepare for the event that their best receiver is indeed gone for the year.
Cleveland did not select a wideout in the 2014 NFL draft, so potential candidates include free-agent additions Miles Austin, Earl Bennett, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins.
The Browns did add a handful of wideouts as undrafted free agents to go along with returning receiver Travis Benjamin and former Green Bay Packers practice squad member Charles Johnson. They are both recovering from injuries involving a torn ACL.
For the Browns to find success this season, they will have to find a way to mold this motley group of receivers into a serviceable corps...and someone will have to step up as the go-to wideout.
Is Andre Ellington ready to be an every-down running back?
The Arizona Cardinals narrowly missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record last season. Perhaps a stronger running game (the team ranked just 23rd) could have made a difference.
That improvement might have come if the Cardinals had given then-rookie Andre Ellington more opportunities in the backfield.
Even though he averaged an impressive 5.5 yards per carry, he received only one start and logged just over half the carries (118) of those logged by starter Rashard Mendenhall (217).
Now that Mendenhall has announced his retirement, the starting job is likely Ellington's to lose. He should have every opportunity to cement himself in the job during offseason workouts, which would make life easier on everyone in the Cardinals offense.
San Diego Chargers
Is Malcom Floyd back to 100 percent?
San Diego Chargers wideout Malcom Floyd suffered a season-ending neck injury just two weeks into the season last year.
According to NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal, Floyd is expected to play this season. If he is able to get back to the form that allowed him to rack up 814 yards and five scores in 2012, the Chargers will welcome his assistance.
Keenan Allen emerged as a legitimate deep threat last season, but it wouldn't hurt to have veteran depth at the position. San Diego's second-most productive wideout in 2013 was Eddie Royal, who produced just 47 catches for 631 yards.
If Floyd doesn't appear to be the same player he was before the injury, he may become a roster-cut candidate. According to Spotrac.com, he is due to earn a base salary of $2.75 million in 2014.
Kansas City Chiefs
What does the offensive line look like?
Determining the makeup of the starting offensive line is a common task among NFL team this time of year, but the Kansas City Chiefs watched two (three, really) starting linemen depart in free agency.
Gone are starting left tackle Branden Albert and guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah.
While head coach Andy Reid has already stated his plans to move 2013 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher to the left side, the entire starting lineup likely remains a work in progress.
The Chiefs waited until the sixth round to draft an offensive lineman (guard Zach Fulton), so there is no clear indication that a rookie will have an inside track at one of the starting jobs.
Returning guard Jeff Allen and center Rodney Hudson probably have the inside track at starting jobs, but the Chiefs will still have two positions to fill. This is assuming that Fisher, who was ranked 70th among all offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) last season, proves he can handle protecting Alex Smith's blind side.
Is Trent Richardson poised for a breakout season?
The Indianapolis Colts did not have a first-round pick in this year's draft because they traded it away in order to acquire running back Trent Richardson from the Browns in 2013.
Unfortunately, the Colts only received 458 rushing yards and a measly 2.9 yards per carry from Richardson last season. Complicating the situation is the fact that last year's leading rusher Donald Brown bolted (sorry) to the San Diego Chargers in free agency.
This means that Richardson is likely to be the immediate starter in Indianapolis, though he has a lot of work to do in order to justify last year's trade.
If he stumbles in offseason workouts, the Colts may have to turn to journeyman running back Ahmad Bradshaw or consider other options at the position. This will be Richardson's first full offseason with the Colts, and the sooner the team knows what it has in the former No. 3 overall pick, the better.
Has the defense improved enough to make Dallas a contender?
The defense of the Dallas Cowboys was pretty bad last season. In fact, the 6,645 yards surrendered by the unit were the most in franchise history.
That, of course, was last season, and the Cowboys will have an opportunity to grow into an improved unit under new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli during the offseason.
Dallas did make some notable free-agent additions to the defense, including defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end Jeremy Mincey. Rookies like Demarcus Lawrence and Anthony Hitchens should also provide a bit of a boost to that side of the ball.
However, ESPN reported that star linebacker Sean Lee has suffered a torn ACL at the onset of OTAs, which is grim news for a defense that is looking for a strong foundation.
If the Cowboys defense doesn't find a way to makes strides during the offseason, potential lame-duck coach Jason Garrett might want to begin formulating a new game plan in order to keep the football out of the hands of opposing offenses.
Can Miami find a role for Dion Jordan?
The Miami Dolphins made former Oregon pass-rusher Dion Jordan the third overall pick in last year's draft. He "rewarded" the team with a mere 26 tackles and 2.0 sacks in his rookie season.
According to Bob Grotz of the Delaware County Times, the Philadelphia Eagles attempted to trade for Jordan this offseason. However, the Dolphins appear content with continuing to experiment with the former Duck star, at least for now.
Per Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, Jordan has added nearly 20 pounds to his frame during the offseason in order to better fit the role the Dolphins have in mind for him in their 4-3 base defense.
The alternative, it would seem, would have been for him to remain at a lighter weight and for the Dolphins to try him as a pass-rushing inside linebacker.
If he doesn't appear more effective after bulking up and the Dolphins are unwilling to adapt their scheme to suit his strengths, it may be time to revisit the trading block while the former sack artist still has some value.
Who will fill the void left by DeSean Jackson?
The Philadelphia Eagles had their reasons for releasing wideout DeSean Jackson, but replacing a 27-year-old receiver with three Pro Bowls under his belt won't be easy.
Fortunately, the Eagles nabbed a pair of wideouts in May's draft who just might be up to the challenge.
The team selected former Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews in the second round and former Oregon receiver Josh Huff in the third. The Eagles also added former Florida receiver Trey Burton and former LSU wideout Kadron Boone as undrafted free agents.
One of these receivers may find a way to step into the role once held by Jackson, though the Eagles have plenty of returning players—including Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper—who will also be vying to become the go-to receiver this offseason.
How soon can Julio Jones be game-ready?
The Atlanta Falcons lost stud receiver Julio Jones for the year just five games into last season, which may have had a little something to do with their disappointing 4-12 record.
Head coach Mike Smith recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Jones won't be "doing a whole lot" during OTAs or minicamp. However, that doesn't mean the Falcons can't use the next few weeks to evaluate his progress as he continues to rehabilitate from last season's injury.
Atlanta did not select a receiver in this year's draft, and it isn't as if it won't hold a roster spot for Jones if he proves to be lagging behind in his recovery.
However, the Falcons did add a trio of wideouts (including one Julian Jones) as undrafted free agents, and they will likely have a better chance of sticking if Jones doesn't appear ahead of schedule.
New York Giants
Who is the best running back on the roster?
The New York Giants struggled to run the football in 2013, averaging a mere 83.2 yards per game on the ground (29th in the league).
Andre Brown led the team with 492 yards rushing last season but left for the Houston Texans in free agency.
In an effort to bolster their rushing attack, the Giants re-signed Peyton Hillis and added former Raiders standout Rashad Jennings to a group that includes David Wilson and Michael Cox. New York also drafted former Boston College star Andre Williams in the fourth round of May's draft.
The Giants need to find a workhorse starter or a capable running back rotation early this offseason in order to better game-plan for the games that count in the fall.
Is Chad Henne really the right man for the (starting) job?
The Jacksonville Jaguars surprised nearly everyone by selecting former Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in May's draft.
The team then made it immediately clear that the plan is for Bortles to spend a year learning behind journeyman quarterback Chad Henne.
Yes, the Jaguars are talking about the same Henne who went 4-9 as a starter in 2013 and posted a passer rating of 76.5. Jacksonville will have the next few weeks to decide if this original plan is really worth following.
Should Bortles prove not to be quite as raw as the Jaguars anticipate, he may actually have a shot at winning the starting job in training camp. Should Henne fall flat on his face in OTAs, the Jaguars will still have time to explore other options.
New York Jets
Who really has the inside track at the starting quarterback job?
Last season the New York Jets were all but forced to hand then-rookie Geno Smith the starting quarterback job. Of course, his main competition that offseason was butt-fumble specialist Mark Sanchez, who suffered a torn labrum in the preseason.
This offseason the Jets brought in former Philadelphia Eagles starter Michael Vick to add some competition for the job.
According to Seth Walder of the New York Daily News, Vick has made it clear that the Jets don't want a truly open competition and that he is expected to be Smith's backup. Jets coach Rex Ryan, however, has suggested otherwise.
Realistically, it would be difficult for the Jets to justify not giving Vick a shot should he prove to be a far superior option during OTAs. This is especially true when you consider Smith tossed 21 interceptions and posted a passer rating of just 66.5 as a rookie.
How well does Golden Tate fit into the offense?
It feels like the Detroit Lions have been searching for a reliable complementary receiving option ever since No. 1 wideout Calvin Johnson first burst onto the national stage.
While the team did draft versatile tight end Eric Ebron in the first round of this year's draft, it appears that the next wideout with a chance to fill the No. 2 role will be free-agent addition Golden Tate.
Tate spent last season as the top receiving threat in the run-oriented offense of the Seattle Seahawks, and it will be interesting to see how the four-year veteran fits as a role player in Detroit's pass-heavy system.
Ebron will join forces with tight end Brandon Pettigrew and 6'6" wideout Kris Durham to give the Lions a trio of big-bodied possession receivers in addtion to Johnson and Ebron. However, it will likely be up to Tate to help stretch the field and take downfield pressure away from Johnson.
Green Bay Packers
Does Jermichael Finley still have a future in Green Bay?
Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley suffered a career-threatening neck injury in Week 7 of last season. He currently remains a free agent, and the Packers drafted tight end Richard Rodgers in the third round of this year's draft.
Yet, Finley may still have a future with the Packers, at least according to Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Per Dunne, Finley is expected to undergo testing on his neck with the team this week.
While this isn't necessarily a sign that the Packers are committed to bringing him back if he's healthy, head coach Mike McCarthy did recently tell SiriusXM NFL Radio that in his mind Finley "is a Green Bay Packer."
How quickly can Kelvin Benjamin become Cam Newton's top target?
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took a big step forward in his career last season, helping the team reach 12 wins and the NFC's No. 2 seed.
Instead of rewarding Newton, the Panthers decided to release his top target Steve Smith after 13 years with the franchise. Naturally, finding a wideout who is capable of replacing Smith's production was a top priority entering the draft.
Carolina selected former Florida State star Kelvin Benjamin in the first round, but he may not be immediately up to the task of being a true No. 1 receiver.
Per NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has released a couple of interesting nuggets about how he views this year's crop of rookie wideouts. Per Wesseling, Gettleman believes that Odell Beckham is the only rookie currently prepared to run an NFL route tree and that Benjamin is "reminiscent of a young Plaxico Burress."
While Burress did eventually develop into a star, he hauled in just 22 passes for 273 yards and no scores as a rookie.
New England Patriots
Can Jimmy Garoppolo develop enough to be a backup in 2014?
The New England Patriots used a second-round selection on Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, which naturally led some to wonder if the team would be willing to deal backup signal-caller Ryan Mallett.
"That's not really something we're interested in," Belichick said. "Ryan has done a good job for us. Fortunately for our team, and maybe unfortunately for Ryan, he hasn't really had any playing time in the last three years. But he's improved tremendously as a quarterback and as a football player, and we have a lot of confidence in him."
Considering Belichick's reputed fondness for misdirection, one wonders what New England really wants to do with Mallett, who is entering the final year of his contract.
The Patriots may still be willing to move the three-year understudy for the right price but would probably only do so if Garoppolo shows enough this offseason to make Belichick comfortable having him as the No. 2 option.
Is Derek Carr ready to compete for a starting role?
Earlier this offseason the Oakland Raiders traded for former Texans starter Matt Schaub—presumably to be the starter for 2014.
The Raiders also used a second-round draft pick on former Fresno State signal-caller Derek Carr.
While Carr may require some seasoning before he is ready to take over an NFL team, the Raiders need to find out if Schaub has enough left in the tank to hold off the rookie and open the regular season as the starting quarterback.
Should Carr show enough promise during offseason workouts, the Raiders may be forced to hold an open competition for the job in training camp and preseason.
St. Louis Rams
Where does Greg Robinson fit along the offensive line as a rookie?
The St. Louis Rams used the No. 2 overall pick in May's draft on former Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, so the team should have some certainty that the rookie will start somewhere in his first pro season.
However, while Robinson is an extremely gifted prospect, his technique is a bit unrefined. This means the best move for the Rams might be to place him at guard early in his career—a move that general manager Les Snead has already suggested, per SiriusXM NFL Radio.
Of course, this shouldn't be discouraging news for Rams fans, as the team already has a pair of capable tackles in Jake Long and Joe Barksdale.
If Robinson manages to outperform one of the existing tackles during the offseason, the new question will involve finding the right starting lineup for the regular season.
Is Ray Rice ready to rebound in 2014?
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice had an extremely disappointing season in 2013, rushing for just 660 yards and four touchdowns with a career-worst (by more than a yard) 3.1 yards-per-carry average.
While the charges can be dismissed with the successful completion of an intervention program, Rice's offseason arrest for assault probably only hurt his standing with the team and its fanbase.
However, he still has a place on the Baltimore roster, and it appears he will be given every chance this offseason to prove he can be the same player he was just a couple of seasons ago.
If he continues to struggle, the Ravens may be forced to consider other options—like fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro—at the position. Taliaferro had his own recent run-in with the law, but he isn't due to make $10 million in base salary over the next three year.
How does DeSean Jackson fit into the offense?
While the Eagles will be busy trying to find a way to replace Jackson's production, the Redskins will be spending time trying to find the right role for him in new offensive coordinator Sean McVay's system.
Jackson can stretch the field and can make plays after the catch, so he should have a decent shot at supplanting Pierre Garcon as Robert Griffin III's top target. However, Garcon and Griffin already have an established chemistry, and Jackson may have to learn to take a backseat in the Redskins offense.
Washington's second-leading receiver last season was tight end Jordan Reed, who had just 45 receptions for 499 yards.
If Jackson is forced into the No. 2 wideout role and struggles to adjust, the Redskins may have to find a way to appease the outspoken receiver.
New Orleans Saints
What role will Brandin Cooks play in the Saints offense as a rookie?
The New Orleans Saints made former Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks their first-round draft selection this offseason, and it will be interesting to see what role the rookie plays in Sean Payton's aerial attack.
On the surface, it would appear that the rookie immediately steps in as a complement to No. 1 receiver Marques Colston.
Having Colston and tight end (or receiver, but that's a whole different question) Jimmy Graham to draw defensive attention would seem to make Cook's transition into the NFL easier. However, Cooks may find himself in position to compensate for the offseason losses of Darren Sproles and Lance Moore.
Sproles accounted for 71 receptions last season, while Moore logged 37.
Of course, Cooks' role will likely be determined by the level of development he is able to showcase in OTAs and other workouts this offseason.
Who replaces Golden Tate as the team's top target?
With Golden Tate now in Detroit, the Seattle Seahawks will have to find a new No. 1 option for quarterback Russell Wilson.
That target may be last season's hot trade acquisition Percy Harvin. Or perhaps Seattle will depend on the rookie wideouts from the 2014 draft.
The team drafted former Colorado standout Paul Richardson in the second round and former Alabama wideout Kevin Norwood in the fourth. Other receivers on the roster include Doug Baldwin and Sidney Rice.
While Tate has never been considered among the NFL's elite group of receivers, the 898 yards and 64 receptions he produced during the regular season last year will be difficult to replace.
Does Pittsburgh have a young sack artist in the fold?
Last offseason the Pittsburgh Steelers used their first-round draft pick to select Georgia pass-rusher Jarvis Jones. He was expected to be the next great Pittsburgh sack master but brought down the quarterback just once as a rookie.
This year the Steelers used their first-round selection to nab Ohio State outside linebacker Ryan Shazier. While he is more of an all-around linebacker than a sack specialist, he does have the athleticism to develop into a capable pass-rusher.
The Steelers need one of the two first-rounders to create pressure this season. Pittsburgh ranked an uncharacteristic 25th in sacks last season with 34, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had to show some creativity to reach that number.
No player on the team registered more than eight sacks in 2013.
What position will Jadeveon Clowney play as a rookie?
The Houston Texans made former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney the first overall pick in this year's draft, so there should be little doubt that he'll start from Day 1.
The question for Houston is how to fit the natural 4-3 end into its 3-4 base defense. As SI.com's Doug Farrar recently pointed out, finding a fit for Clowney may not be as difficult as one might think.
Houston's new defensive coordinator is Romeo Crennel, who has a history dating back to his New England days for creating a variety of schemes and looks in his 3-4 base defense. This means that while Clowney may be asked to spend some time rushing from the outside linebacker position, the Texans are probably content to tweak their system to allow him to play without his hand in the dirt at times.
In case you forgot, star sack artist J.J. Watt has done pretty well as a defensive end in Houston, though Crennel's variation of the 3-4 is a little different than what Texans fans saw last season.
At any rate, the top offseason goal for Houston should be finding a way for Clowney to play as often and efficiently as possible as a rookie.
Is Bishop Sankey ready to be a workhorse running back?
Former Washington star Bishop Sankey comes to the Tennessee Titans amid high expectations for a couple of reasons.
For starters, he holds the distinction of being the first running back selected in the 2014 NFL draft. He will also be called upon to make fans forget about the departed Chris Johnson, who rushed for 7,965 yards and 50 touchdowns during his six years in Tennessee.
While the 5'9", 209-pound back does not have the breakaway speed of Johnson, he does have the prototypical build and skill set of an every-down NFL back.
The Titans need to find out if Sankey is ready to assume that role as quickly as possible in order to adjust their offense in time for the regular season. If Sankey isn't prepared to become the starter, Tennessee's other current options are Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle.
Is Teddy Bridgewater ready to push for the starting job?
The Minnesota Vikings moved up to grab former Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with the final pick in Round 1 of May's draft.
Whether the Texans were really interested in him with the No. 33 overall selection or not, trading up was a shrewd move and one that seems to indicate the Vikings are sold on him as their future franchise quarterback.
What the Vikings need to find out over the next couple of months is if Bridgewater can develop enough to start in Week 1.
His main competition this offseason will come from journeyman Matt Cassel and former Vikings first-round pick Christian Ponder. While neither Ponder nor Cassel wowed in 2013, throwing Bridgewater to the wolves before he is ready (which may have been one issue with Ponder) could be a recipe for disaster.
San Francisco 49ers
What is the plan for Jimmie Ward?
Once the regular season begins, the San Francisco 40ers should be starting first-round selection Jimmie Ward at the strong safety or nickelback position.
However, he is still recovering from offseason foot surgery and is not expected to take part in full workouts until at least July, according to NFL.com's Ryan Maquinana.
This means the 49ers need to spend the next few weeks trying to determine who has the best chance of competing for a significant role in the event Ward doesn't return on schedule.
San Francisco added former Colts safety Antoine Bethea to help offset the loss of Donte Whitner but still have to deal with the offseason departures of cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
The 49ers drafted cornerbacks Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker in the fourth and sixth rounds, respectively.
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