SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22: Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers stands with head coach Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers.during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants at Candlestick Park on January 22, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

San Francisco 49ers Grades, Free Agents: Just About Everyone Outperforming Expectations

The San Francisco 49ers performed well above expectations in 2011-12, but how did the individual moving parts perform? We'll grade 'em all out and examine potential replacements throughout the offseason. For more on the 49ers, check out Niners Nation.

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Shawntae Spencer Potentially More Valuable To 49ers Than Given Credit For

On Thursday, news came out that the San Francisco 49ers would allow cornerback Shawntae Spencer and his agent to seek a trade away from the team before offseason activities and the like begins. San Francisco has historically done this for players they plan to cut, and rarely has it actually led to a player finding a trade destination. That being said, there could be a bit more to Spencer and his value.

The prevailing reason behind the 49ers parting ways with Spencer is the fact that he's set to make $3.2 million in 2012, while having been inactive for nine games including the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it's pretty easy to just say that Spencer will be released. It wouldn't make sense to carry him on the roster if he's going to miss half of the games and make that much money, especially with some high profile free agents this season.

But there's a couple things to consider in regards to the 49ers potentially keeping Spencer. For one, Spencer fell behind and was inactive for games he wasn't injured in. While there's definite injury concerns going forward (two hamstring injuries and turf toe in 2011 alone), it was the early injury that put him out of the quick training camp and set him behind.

It was an entirely new coaching staff and there was a big lockout. When Spencer had a chance to show the new coaches that he deserved to keep his starting job, he was hurt and passed by. Mid-season, it didn't make sense to devote time to Spencer. They had to go with what they were going with. So Spencer could conceivably be valuable to the team, just one season removed from a very stellar season.

On top of those things, Carlos Rogers is a free agent, and behind him there's not a lot to work with. Spencer is valuable against certain types of receivers, but his value to the 49ers shoots up if they somehow can't re-sign Rogers. At first, it seemed inevitable that they get a done with the Pro Bowl cornerback, but after some notes that the 49ers might be more interested in bringing back Dason Goldson, there hasn't been much news related to a potential deal with Rogers.

So Spencer could be a little bit more valuable than most are giving him credit for. Which may all be for naught, really, as that value simply means that Spencer could have some suitors for a late-round pick in a trade scenario. The more valuable Spencer is to the 49ers, the more valuable he could be to another team. Really, the best situation for them is that another team wants to give them a fifth- or sixth-round pick for him.


San Francisco 49ers Could Move CB Shawntae Spencer

The San Francisco 49ers don't have too many critical decisions to make this offseason regarding free agency. Many of their top players are coming back and should be able to make another go at a Super Bowl run with many of the same pieces intact.

But some players will have to be left go. Underused cornerback Shawntae Spencer of the San Francisco 49ers is one of those figures. Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has more on the story.

Spencer speculated that his lack of use, coupled with the $3.2 million in base salary he is scheduled to earn in 2012, would prompt the 49ers to release him. "It's like dating the same girl all through junior high and high school and then come senior year, she's dating another guy. I've played right corner since I got here," he said last month. He said the best advice was from his brother, who picked up on the lady-with-another-man theme. "There's plenty of women out there," Spencer said.

If the 49ers are unable to move Spencer, they'll probably cut him.

Spencer made $3.3 million and was inactive for most of the season. The 49ers are pretty well-set with their top three anyway. Carlos Rogers was dominant last year, Tarell Brown made progress as the #2 corner, and rookie CB Chris Culliver had a strong first year campaign and took over the nickel back role. San Francisco probably can find better value and offload Spencer's contract at the same time.

To talk about the 49ers potentially moving Spencer, head on over to Niners Nation.

Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman Among Best Linebackers In The League

We'll continue our look at the San Francisco 49ers and their various positional units today with a look at the inside linebackers. Effectively, the 49ers had three inside linebackers, as the other two on the roster were core special teamers, more than anything. Needless to say, the 49ers are set in this regard moving forward, though they may need another backup, as last year's option may be in line for a bigger contract and a bigger role elsewhere. Let's get to it.

Patrick Willis is, well, Patrick Willis, ya know? Great linebackers nowadays should always have the caveat "Well, they're no Patrick Willis, but ..." any time you're grading them out. Willis is just so good at everything on the football field, and is without a doubt the best inside linebacker in the NFL today. He's incredibly strong, fast enough to catch most players in the league and when he's not, will take the smartest angles of any other player to cover the distance. He's a hard-hitting tackler and he's great in coverage, suffering his only lapses in that regard when he was beaten by Jimmy Graham going for a jump ball when the 49ers played the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs. A+

NaVorro Bowman can be mistaken for Patrick Willis at times, which is really enough to give him a very solid grade. After looking abysmal in his limited time his rookie season, Bowman was thrust into the starting role as Takeo Spikes left for free agency, and he performed better than most figured he could this quickly. He was a hard-hitter, which wasn't expected, and showed he potentially had better range than Willis. His angles weren't quite as refined, but there were multiple folks saying that they could't tell if it was Willis or Bowman that made a certain tackle. Not only do the 49ers have the best group of inside linebackers, they have the No. 1 and No. 2 inside linebackers in the league. A+

Larry Grant surprised most people, but there were plenty who also knew that he could be great if given some playing time. It just so happens that Willis had to miss a few games, so Grant was pressed into action. There was almost no difference for the first couple games - Grant played out of his mind. He knocked down multiple passes and was mauling running backs in the backfield. He's not quite as fast as a lot of inside linebackers, but he's a sure tackler. As he got more and more time, he started making mistakes and it was clear he needed more time to really get into a groove, but isn't that what you want out of a backup? A guy who can come in and just play incredibly well? Unfortunately, it likely means Grant will get a good offer to potentially start somewhere else. Grading him relative to a backup. A-

Blake Costanzo was a special teamer and nothing else, but he was possibly the best special teamer the 49ers have had in a very long time, which is saying something given some of the players they've had in recent years. He's fast, strong, a sure tackler and very smart - he could probably be a decent backup at inside linebacker if it all came down to it. But he's not going to get a grade as an inside linebacker.

Tavares Gooden did not see the field much on defense, but was a core special teamer. He got the hang of things in that regard as the season went on, but again, did not factor into things as an inside linebacker. No grade.

Overall: A+


DeSean Jackson To San Francisco 49ers Not Likely To Happen

Almost everyone everywhere knows that the San Francisco 49ers need to upgrade at wide receiver. Their performance wasn't good enough in the playoffs to get them to the Super Bowl, and the receivers the Niners currently have probably won't be enough to win games in the future.

So what about DeSean Jackson? Jackson seemed to be coming off a tumultuous season with the Philadelphia Eagles where he struggled with inconsistency, a tough contract situation, and character concerns.

However, DeSean becoming a 49er in 2012 seems to be very unlikely at this point. Jeff McLane has this report.

The Eagles are going to franchise DeSean Jackson, count on it.

They will not let their Pro Bowl receiver - whose contract is set to expire - walk without getting something in return, according to NFL sources.

So that means the Eagles will do one of three things before March 5:

They will franchise Jackson and keep him for the 2012 season.

They will franchise and then trade him.

Or they will agree to a contract extension with the 25-year-old, an unlikely proposition at this point.

It makes sense that the Eagles aren't willing to part with their asset for nothing. DeSean is too much of a gamechanger to let him go and hope he doesn't end up burning you in the long-run. Jackson should be retained if at all possible.

Besides, there's no guarantee San Francisco would want DeSean even if he was available.

To talk about DeSean and the 49ers, head on over to Niners Nation. To discuss DeSean and the Eagles, check out Bleeding Green Nation.


San Francisco 49ers Grades: Alex Smith And The Other Quarterbacks

The San Francisco 49ers have received high marks for their tight ends, offensive line, running backs and defensive line. For the offense, only one position remains, and it's going to be a controversial one, to be sure. We're next going to take a look at the quarterback position, led by Alex Smith, with backup Colin Kaepernick and third-stringer Scott Tolzien. Let's just get right into the grades.

Alex Smith had a very solid season by anybody's standards, which wasn't altogether unexpected. Smith has generally been that quarterback that doesn't make mistakes, but who can't necessarily win you a football game on his own. Up until this season, he's fallen short of every expectation had of him, and has been labeled a huge bust, despite solid numbers the past few seasons. Still, even with the positive signs, there wasn't much expectation for Smith heading into this season by realists.

As it turns out, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman were able to do exactly what they said they were going to: maximize his skill-set and use him the best way they possibly can. They did that, with Smith completing the fewest turnovers by all quarterbacks not named Aaron Rodgers, and coming just short of setting a franchise record for passing attempts without an interception at the end of the season. Smith rallied the 49ers to six fourth-quarter comebacks and led them on two huge 85-yard drives to beat the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs.

Of course, there's a lot he can improve upon. His awareness is not totally there, and if it his, he's still reluctant to pull the trigger. Smith threw some very pretty passes this season, but he often waited far too long and never threw his receivers open. There were plenty of times when Smith had a receiver open enough to pull the trigger and he hesitated or went underneath. It's an issue that he needs to correct. Maybe Jim Harbaugh can work with him on that.

In all, Smith had a very good season, his best to date, and earned the starting role heading into next season. He's not a leash-less franchise quarterback who can throw together four or five bad games and expect to be secure in his job in 2012, but he's the guy who should get the full amount of work in the offseason and start in week one, barring some huge setbacks. B+

Colin Kaepernick is progressing, but didn't see the field more than a couple times this past season. He was drafted early and might be the quarterback of the future, but we won't know much about him or what the 49ers really have in him until he gets a full offseason of work with Harbaugh and all of the coaching staff. Expect Kaepernick to not officially compete with Smith in training camp and preseason, but the best thing he can do is show the coaches that he can compete, and be ready in the event of a Smith injury or slip-up.

Scott Tolzien did not dress, but was chosen over Josh McCown to be the third-string quarterback. He had a solid preseason with the San Diego Chargers and will have a full offseason with the 49ers to show his stuff. There's actually quite a bit of upside there.

Overall: B+ Since there's only one quarterback to really go by, it has to be a B+


49ers Grades: Bright Spots Few And Far Between With 49ers Wide Receivers

Continuing our offseason grades of the San Francisco 49ers position-by-position, we'll next take a look at the wide receiver position. Unfortunately, it was one of the weakest positions on the team and didn't inspire anything close to confidence on offense. It's pretty clear that the 49ers need to pursue some options in the 2012 NFL Draft or free agency, because these guys won't get it done. It's not all bad, though - so let's get to the grades.

Michael Crabtree performed well, and finally looked like a positive contribution to the offense. He was a force with the ball in his hands and did all he could to make the catch. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Crabtree is going to be a No. 1 receiver in the future. He struggles with top-level corners and is prone to disappear for long periods of time. Still, he had over 800 yards on the season and in an offense that's more confident in its own ability, Crabtree could flourish. B

Josh Morgan looked like he was on his way to a 1,000-yard season before going down with an injury. The most frustrating part about the injury was that it came late in a game that was well in-hand. Either way, Morgan looked really good, especially running slants, and if the 49ers bring him back, he could be a big factor in the offense in 2012. It's hard to grade him based on limited time. B

Ted Ginn Jr. was a valuable return man, so much so that the 49ers fell apart in the postseason when Ginn was out with an injury. Still, he didn't do much on offense throughout the season. The 49ers can't claim to have a great group of receivers when Ginn can be the No. 2 guy. In all fairness to him, he's improved his hands by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, he's unable to run crisp routes and really get open. D

Kyle Williams will draw the ire of 49ers fans for a long time. There's no way to avoid that. That being said, if the postseason showed us anything, it's that Williams takes too many risks to play on special teams. But those same risks don't exist on offense, and Williams is a fast, agile receiver with good hands and solid potential. He was limited in his playing time, but aside from two good performances, he was largely invisible. He was good, but he'll need to step it up big time in 2011. C+

Brett Swain doesn't strike fear into defenses. He had two receptions, and in his defense, he was held badly on a play that would have went for big yardage. Still, Swain is not that great and did not do anything well in 2011, in his limited time on the field. D-

Joe Hastings did not have any stats.

Overall: C-


49ers Grades: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati Play Well Down The Stretch For Strong O-Line

We'll continue our grades of the San Francisco 49ers' various positions today with a look at the performance of the offensive line. As a whole unit, they struggled earlier on in the season, but got stronger as the season went on. The thing about the 49ers' offensive line is that, where they struggled in one aspect (pass protection), they excelled in the other.

In other words, when the offensive line started to toughen up against pass rushers later on in the season, they stopped blocking for Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. But you take the bad with the good, and the 49ers relied on Alex Smith and the passing game late in the season, and they came just short of their ultimate goal. Let's get on with the grades.

Joe Staley started off the season in much the same way as he finished the last: solid, but with plenty of mistakes. Staley was prone to making all manner of mistakes at the start of the 2011 campaign, from false starts to missed assignments. It was very frustrating for the team and its fans, considering Staley's contract and the fact that he's a seasoned veteran at this point. He makes immature mistakes, and that's the bad that comes with the good. Fortunately, Staley improved an awful lot as the season went along, becoming a rock at the left tackle spot, something that is often overlooked. It's true that, when he went down with an injury, that his replacement played well, but Staley isn't on thin ice at this point. Playing well down the stretch earns him a B+.

Mike Iupati actually had a bad game or two, for what seems like the first time in his career. That being said, Iupati played out of his mind more often than naught. It's hard to explain how Staley earned a Pro Berth in lieu of Iupati, but either way, Iupati most certainly deserved a berth. He is a mauler in the run game and, though he made the occasional mental error, he was absolutely solid in pass protection. The only time he faltered was when, hilariously, the right side of the line suffered injuries. A

Jonathan Goodwin came in and struggled early on. In fact, Goodwin had some very bad games over the first couple weeks, and then suddenly he was a rock. Goodwin played at a very high level from about week four on, and there's not much else to say about him. It's clear he doesn't have a ton of time left to play, but for now, his best moments were pretty darn good. Still, he wasn't as consistent as many expected, given that he's a former Pro Bowler. B-

Adam Snyder did just as I always thought he would, and played very well at right guard. He did have issues with some of the power guys and dealing with Anthony Davis messing up to his right, but he played hard and was a force in the run game. Snyder made a lot of athletic plays, too, and was great in the middle double-teaming guys with Goodwin. In short, Snyder should definitely be the guy going forward at right guard unless the 49ers are presented with someone can't-miss. A-

Anthony Davis was beat soundly by certain kinds of rushers. The monster edge rushers like Jason Babin absolutely abused him from start to finish. That was Davis' biggest problem in both of his seasons thus far: once he got beat, it spiraled out of control and he continued to get beat. He's not a bad player by any means and he's still ridiculously young, but the guy has to get more consistent and he needs to not fall behind so much. He can go a game without relenting one bit and then get beat 15 different times the next week. Consistency is the problem. C

Alex Boone is someone that is hard to evaluate, given the fact that he's so impressive looking in practice and as a physical specimen overall, but he hasn't seen the field much. When he did see the field, he played well, but he failed to do anything spectacular with his playing time, something that is disappointing given the lacking play from Davis. Some 49ers fans hoped that Boone would have worked his way into the lineup, however improbable that would have been. B

Chilo Rachal played well. He came in for relief a couple of times and didn't screw up. That's as nice as we're going to get. He's not great in pass protection, but he's not a bad blocker. He didn't inspire much confidence, either way. C

Overall: B+


49ers Grades: Frank Gore, Bruce Miller Lead The Way In Strong San Francisco Rushing Attack

We're continuing our position-by-position grades of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 today with a look at the teams' roster of running backs. San Francisco ran the ball well in 2011, as was expected under Jim Harbaugh. It's true that he brought a variation of the West Coast Offense to San Francisco, but it was a variation that relied on tight ends and running backs. As the tight ends started slow, the running backs were counted on more and more, and carried on strong for the most part.

Let's jump right into the grades.

Frank Gore was the bell cow of the offense, and the focal point. In all actuality, the 49ers would have been much better off if they used Gore more often and in a different way, at times. It's hard to think about Jim Harbaugh and his offense not being utilized in its best way, but it was clear near the end of the season that they were getting desperate to innovate with the running game. They tried to fix something that wasn't broken, and Gore struggled. That being said, Gore did, at times, suffer from an inability to get going early on, and that in turn hurt the team. There were times when the blocking was good and he'd just stumble, and he was injured at times, once again. Gore was one of the top running backs in 2012, but it's hard to see his production lasting. He also didn't catch the ball as well as he did in recent seasons. B+

Kendall Hunter spelled Gore as the change-of-pace back and, as a rookie, he showed some great things. He didn't get a ton of carries, and there were certainly moments in which he looked like he wasn't totally adapting to the NFL game well, but when he had the ball in his hands and just a little bit of space, he showed flashes of a dynamic playmaker and the 49ers should feel good about that. Outside of one game early on, Hunter also pass protected very well for a rookie and someone his size, so that's another sign going forward. A little bit more was expected of him and his carries, but the 49ers have every reason to be excited about him going forward. B+

Anthony Dixon is one of the most well-loved 49ers thanks to his skills on the dance floor and his colorful personality on Twitter, but how does that translate to the field? In all actuality, Dixon ran a little bit better than usual, not choosing to dance around, but it was pretty clear that he's the third option going forward. A definite positive is the fact that he pass protects well, has the build to potentially take some snaps at fullback, and was a contributor to what was perhaps the league's best special teams unit. C+

Bruce Miller came in as a rookie and played out of his mind. The guy was a defensive end in college and immediately made the transition to fullback. His biggest tool as a defensive end has made him a powerful and punishing blocker: his ability to use leverage. He was so good with that on the defensive side of the ball, and he's used it to toss around defensive players on the offensive side with the 49ers. Miller wasn't perfect, though, making rookie mistakes in his assignments, letting Alex Smith and the other running backs take punishment. The fact that he was a rookie learning a new position and that he looked useful in the passing game make his potential going forward pretty darn high. A-

Moran Norris lost his starting job after missing time with an injury, and to his credit, he played well before it happened. Most 49ers fans won't admit as much, given the fact that Norris has been the scapegoat since returning to the team. For the most part, he actually has deserved the flack that came his way, but he did look decidedly less useless this time around than before. Still, he's not half the player he was back in 2006, and the fact that he's no longer just being out-muscled, he's being out-smarted means he's not likely to return in 2012. The grade is also marked down because he is a non-factor in the passing game. D+

Overall: B


49ers Season Review: Vernon Davis' NFL Playoffs Performance Helps Tight Ends Grades

It's tough to really grade the San Francisco 49ers when it comes to certain positions. Given the fact that Jim Harbaugh was supposed to come to the team and bring with him a power-running team with an emphasis on versatile tight ends in the passing game, one would say they did not perform up to those expectations. Early on, the offense did favor the tight ends in Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, but neither managed to really ... be open as much as one needs to run that kind of offense.

As such, throughout the course of the season, all three tight ends on the roster fell into more of a blocking role - and they all did it very well. When you consider that, they get higher marks, but one has to feel that it was a slightly disappointing performance from this group. It's not a stretch to say that you expect nothing short of straight A's. That being said, a strong performance in the playoffs from one of them certainly bumped it up a little.

Vernon Davis is not nearly as consistent as one would like, but he showed up big time in the playoffs, and was a key contributor in the 49ers making it past the New Orleans Saints. Early on, folks expected a lot out of him, given Jim Harbaugh's tight-end driven offense, but he was double-covered for a good portion of the opening few weeks and his chances were few and far between. Eventually, the 49ers started to use him more for blocking, and the double coverage slowly went away.

The problem? Davis still wasn't a huge factor in the passing game. Teams stopped putting double coverage on him, and he relapsed into having a case of the dropsies. More than that, Davis regressed in his ability to lay out and really go after balls. In short, he became everything 49ers fans disliked about him until Mike Singletary pulled his pants down and sent him to the showers. (That sentence was awesome to write!) But again, Davis did show up for the playoffs and he is insanely good at blocking. It's hard to be really strict with his grade. B+

Delanie Walker had a pretty normal year for him ... on opposite day. Walker suddenly became this dynamic blocker who left it all on the field, especially from a fullback position. Unfortunately, he became less and less of a factor, and unfortunately, he picked the wrong Giants game to step up in. In an offense that was supposed to feature two prominent tight ends, Walker didn't impress by any stretch of the imagination. Still, he's in shape, his presence on the field always has to be accounted for by defense, and his blocking was something to admire. B-

Justin Peelle was essentially a non-factor, but his blocking ability in the absence of Bruce Miller was definitely there. He missed assignments pretty frequently in run blocking from the No. 2 tight end position, but he performed well in the H-back/fullback role, which could help his chances of remaining on the roster in 2012. If he can be a backup fullback, then the 49ers may cut ties with Moran Norris and embrace the fact that, in a nutshell, Peelle is a versatile blocker. B-

Overall Grade: B


San Francisco 49ers Season Review: Justin Smith, The Driving Force Behind An Elite Defensive Line

We're starting to roll out our position-by-position grades for the San Francisco 49ers for this past season. It was a season that saw a team that was only expected to get four-to-six wins rise to the top and fall just a game short of an appearance in the Super Bowl. Though the season ended on a disappointing note, the team came so far and should feel great heading into the next season, providing they can keep the roster together.

The defensive line led the 49ers to a league-best rush defense and, of course, made the rest of the defense better around them. Let's take a look at the grades for the season

Justin Smith was ridiculously good at every single thing he did in 2011, as he has been since joining the 49ers. He's a veteran leader, and he played extremely well with his motor at 100 percent for each and every game. Smith is a great pass rusher who is always in the mix to disrupt a quarterback, and he's got some of the best block shedding to help stop the run. He was an unquestionable leader on defense, and despite the fact that he's now 32 years-old, he's looking like he'll continue to be an every-down player in 2012. Smith was arguably the defensive player of the year in 2011. A+

Isaac Sopoaga is a player who I personally was not so high on in the offseason. He was coming off a season at left defensive end in which, for the first time in his career, he wasn't useless. Then, Aubrayo Franklin left for "greener" pastures with the New Orleans Saints and Sopoaga had to switch positions. It was a big change, even though he'd played nose tackle before, especially given that he finally seemed to "get it" in 2010. But Sopoaga was fantastic this past season, stopping the run and occupying space for the best linebackers in the NFL in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Perhaps the biggest change for him is the fact that he found a way to use all that strength of his with a new set of moves and the application of leverage. A-

Ray McDonald received a nice extension in the offseason despite not having started at left defensive end. Up until that point, he'd been a backup, though it's worth noting that he was, in fact, a good backup with some solid pass-rushing skills. McDonald came in and played at a very high level, rushing the passer well and stopping the run better than most figured he could. Through the first few weeks, he was one of the best 3-4 ends in the NFL, but he cooled off near the end of the season, and was banged up. Either way, he earned his starter contract and should progress nicely next season, provided he can stay healthy. B+

Ricky Jean Francois played all positions on the defensive line in 2011, making starts at nose tackle and left defensive end, filling in for injuries. He played very well, and that kind of versatility is very useful in this league. You could probably ask any 49er fan if they're OK with Jean Francois as a starter, and a good portion will likely tell you that. Graded as a backup and his level of play off the bench, he'll get high marks. A-

Demarcus Dobbs was active for 12 games and recorded a couple tackles. He came in with nobody knowing who he was and ended up being active so much, which is definitely a good sign. Still, after a great preseason, a bit more was expected of him once the regular season came around. N/A

Ian Williams only appeared once and did not register any tackles. He remains a player with solid upside at the nose tackle position. N/Q

Overall, the 49ers boasted an extremely tough defensive line in 2011, and it is what anchored the NFL's best defense. Without the defensive line playing the way it did, Willis and Bowman might look a little more human, and the secondary would have struggled mightily. Having one of the best in the NFL, two dependable starters and a versatile backup gives the 49ers offensive line a final grade of A.


San Francisco 49ers Offseason, Grades And More: Outperforming Expectations Just About Everywhere

The San Francisco 49ers performed well above expectations in 2011-12, but how did the individual moving parts perform? We'll grade 'em all out and examine potential replacements throughout the offseason. For more on the 49ers, check out Niners Nation.

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