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In my last post I laid out a plan for the Browns front office brass to bring in a proven head coach to lead the team. The choices I put forward were Brian Billick, Marty Schottenheimer and David Shaw. After using my Jimmy Haslam checkbook to write one of them a large check, it’s on to a couple more large checks I need to write – pending free agents.

The Browns are actually in a pretty good position related to pending free agents with only a couple contributors eligible for free agency. Those players include center Alex Mack, strong safety T.J. Ward, guard Shawn Lauvao and kicker Billy Cundiff. Running back Willis McGahee and guard Oneil Cousins are free agents too, but they are as good as gone. In my opinion, Lauvao should be as good as gone too so let’s cross him off the list. Cundiff was solid this year, but I wouldn’t give him any more than another one-year deal and possibly look for a kicker late in the draft. That leaves Mack and Ward as the only guys the Browns need to worry about.

With Mack, it wouldn’t make sense to use the franchise tag on him as he’s lumped into the “Offensive Line” tag which is going to end up over $10 million next year. That being said, they should consider giving him a contract in the neighborhood of $5 to $6 million per year for five years which would put him in the top five or so for centers in the league. The team has the cap room, Mack is a two-time Pro-Bowler and he’s consistent and reliable.

Related to T.J. Ward, if the team can’t work out a deal they could end up slapping the Franchise Tag on Ward which would account for about $7 million. They should try to give him a long-term deal somewhere just under that of Kam Chancellor of Seattle who got a four-year deal for $28 million. I’m thinking four years at about $22 million and I’d be happy as a front office.

The next steps will be free agents from other teams and then on to the draft. I already have some strong opinions on this year’s draft, and will share those in the coming days. 

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The NFL Draft has come and gone and this week is kind of like the week following Christmas. Fans take time to research all the players their teams drafted and analyze the draft a little deeper than first glance. At Christmas, you get all your presents and are all excited about all of them but can’t play with them all at once so you take the entire next week to play with each one.

Plus, the following week is when you realize you got all these cool things, but you need batteries or something else to make them work. This is akin to NFL teams signing undrafted Free Agents following the draft…the picks they got in the draft aren’t quite enough to fill out the roster so they need to add a few more players to the roster to make it complete.

This brings us to my final grade for the Cleveland Browns 2012 NFL Draft. Consider this as you read through my grading and rationale behind this. If you look at teams’ drafts from year to year if a team ends up with two or three solid starters from a draft that would be deemed a good draft. Sound low??? Go to nfl.com and look back at draft classes from 2009-2011 and see how many teams got more than two or three starters in those drafts. However, the Browns need to be held to a slightly higher standard this year as they had two first-round picks and two fourth-round picks thanks to the Julio Jones trade last season.

Overall, I’m going to give the Browns a “B-” grade on this draft strictly because I think they drafted a couple guys a little earlier than they needed to and I would have love to see them trade a pick or two in this year’s draft for a higher pick in next year’s draft to keep stockpiling draft picks.

Moving up one spot to take Trent Richardson was fine by me as we hardly gave up anything of huge value to move up and with 13 total picks we had plenty of ammunition to swing this deal. Plus, the Browns ended up getting one additional pick back by trading down in the third round. Richardson is a safe pick and will be a starter from day one. I think their only other option at #3 or #4 would have been Justin Blackmon and he seems like a risky pick to me and the Browns aren’t in a position to be rolling the dice on draft picks.

I would have been much happier with the Brandon Weeden pick at #22 had we turned around and taken WR Stephen Hill or Ruben Randall in the second round at pick #37. Instead we used that pick on a RT, Mitchell Schwartz. I said it before, I like Weeden and there’s no question in my mind he’s an immediate upgrade over Colt McCoy. The draft is about getting better and if he makes our team better at the most important position in the NFL then I’m ok with the pick.

With Mitchell Schwartz he seems like another safe pick who should come in and be a starter immediately. He’s big, strong and has lots of experience at the college level. If he can’t beat out Oniel Cousins at RT in training camp then the grade for this draft immediately drops. I’m ok with safe picks in the second round as the Browns have rolled the dice on some classic picks like Chaun Thompson and David Veikune in the past and how did those work out for the team?

The biggest question mark for me in the entire draft was the third round for the Browns. First, they trade down 20 spots when some quality players were still on the board. At this point they still hadn’t taken a receiver and guys like Mohamad Sanu from Rutgers and Chris Givens from Wake Forest were still on the board. Then, to top it off, they take a DT from Cincinnati, John Hughes, who isn’t well known by anyone and is going to be a rotational player at best. The only reason I’m not killing them on this pick is they have no depth at DT behind Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor so if this guy can play at all then it’s another upgrade over what is currently on the roster.

The fourth round is where it began to get interesting for the Browns and others in this draft. Before the round began I told numerous people the Browns needed to come out of the round with a receiver and a linebacker. Well, the Brownies delivered and they got a LB I really liked going into the draft, James-Michael Johnson and a WR who not many people knew much about, Travis Benjamin, from Miami, FL. Johnson can play any of the four LB positions and I think he may take over for Scott Fujita as a starter before the season is over. Plus, this is another area where the team had zero depth. In Benjamin the Browns got a fast, deep-threat kind of receiver but he’s not a tall guy so hopefully he can do the job of stretching the field to keep teams honest. Something no team did last year with McCoy at the helm and the rag-tag bunch of receivers we rolled out there from week to week.

Finally, in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds teams are usually looking for bottom of the roster guys or special-teamers. The Browns took a ginormous OL in Ryan Miller (6’7″ and 321) who played guard at Colorado but can also play tackle in the fifth round. He can compete with Schwartz at RT and hopefully be a swing tackle in case something would happen to either starter. We saw what happened last season with Artis Hicks and Oniel Cousins at RT so this guy can’t be any worse than those two. In the sixth the Browns took two guys I actually really like – Emmanuel Acho, a LB from Texas, and Billy Wynn, a DT from Boise State. A draft expert I trust more than any other, Gil Brandt, the GM of the Cowboys in the 70’s and 80’s, had Wynn ranked #63 on his top 100 players. Again, these guys can be special teams guys and add depth to two areas we desperately needed it. Acho put up big numbers in college but was considered a little undersized for the NFL. Wynn put up good numbers but was knocked because of his effort in college. Hopefully one of the two pans out and we can get some help and depth from them moving forward. Lastly, the seventh round is usually a throw-away round where no-name guys from no-name schools get drafted and rarely make an impact. In 2011 the Browns took Eric Hagg, a safety from Nebraska, who was hurt most of the season but came in and played some quality football for the Browns at the end of the season. This year they take CB Trevin Wade from Arizona and FB/H-Back Brad Smelley from Alabama. Wade was projected to go much higher in the draft but had consistency issues in college. He has the speed and skills to be successful, so hopefully a little NFL coaching can get the best out of him. Smelley was Richardson’s blocker at Alabama and may be able to compete with Owen Marecic for the FB spot or possibly even Alex Smith or Jordan Cameron for the final TE spot on the roster.

This seems to be the third solid draft for Tom Heckert and the Browns so hopefully it’ll translate to success on the field. Ultimately it’s going to come down to Brandon Weeden more than anything else, so if he’s a success then everything else the Browns did or didn’t do this off-season will be water under the bridge. I’ll leave you with one last thing. In looking at the picks the Browns had and who was on the board at the time, here’s what I would have done if I were turning in the index cards at Radio City Music Hall in NYC…

Round 1, Pick 3 – Trent Richardson – RB – Alabama
Round 1, Pick 22 – Stephen Hill – WR – Georgia Tech
Round 2, Pick 37 – Brandon Weeden – QB – Oklahoma State
Round 3, Pick 87 -Bobbie Massie – T – Mississippi
Round 4, Pick 100 – Ronnell Lewis – OLB – Oklahoma
Round 4, Pick 120 – Brandon Boykin – CB – Georgia
Round 5, Pick 160 – George Iloka – S – Boise State
Round 6, Pick 204 – Billy Wynn – DT – Boise State
Round 6, Pick 205 – Chase Minnifield – CB – Virginia
Round 7, Pick 245 – Eric Page – WR – Toledo
Round 7, Pick 247 – James Brown – G – Troy

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Cleveland fans lost arguably the best player in the NBA only a couple short years ago when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat. What if Cleveland is paid back in the form of one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Peyton Manning, spurning a lucrative offer from the Miami Dolphins in South Beach to come to Cleveland?

Obviously these two scenarios are much different as LeBron James was peaking when he turned his back on his hometown whereas Peyton Manning is on the downside of his career and is coming off a major surgery which cost him the entire 2011 season. Nonetheless, the excitement and passion that the signing of Manning would bring to Northeast Ohio would rival the anger and spite that the exodus of LeBron caused when he stabbed the Cavs and his fans in the back.

To take this unlikely scenario one step further, what if Manning came to the Browns and somehow found a way to help bring the Lombardi Trophy and a Super Bowl victory to Cleveland? In an area starving for a winner, a Peyton Manning-led championship would temporarily erase the memories of “The Fumble”, “The Drive”, “Red Right 88”,  and “The Decision”. Nothing could ever happen in sports to erase those memories (except maybe a Grand Slam of championships with the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers all winning in the same season) but Peyton Manning would forever be immortalized in the eyes of every sports fan in Northeast Ohio.

Could this happen? Absolutely – because the Browns are one of the few teams who not only need a quarterback, but they also have plenty of salary cap room where they could overpay and sign Manning to bring him to Cleveland. He won’t come here for a discount, but if he gets the Browns to the playoffs is he worth $15 million a year? If Manning wins them a Super Bowl I think every person in Northeast Ohio would say he’s worth $50 million!

Will he come to Cleveland? Realistically no, because the Browns don’t play in a passer friendly environment, don’t have quality receivers and run a very conservative offense. If the Browns would agree to open up the playbook and bring in a playmaker like Vincent Jackson, draft Justin Blackmon, or even bring in Manning’s go-to guy, Reggie Wayne, the offer gets a lot more appealing, but it’s still a reach. As a life-long Cleveland fan I’ve been brainwashed to give the Browns a 1% chance of signing Manning because good things don’t happen to Cleveland sports teams. However, to quote Jim Carrey (Lloyd Christmas) from Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

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Playing football isn’t for everyone. Whether you’re talking about 7-year olds or 37-year olds it takes a certain mentality to be a football player and it definitely isn’t for the feint of heart. For this reason I think there is one character “flaw” you’ll hear about players eligible for the NFL Draft which may be more of a positive than a negative when evaluating a young man strictly as a football player.

The flaw I’m talking about is anger management or aggression. First, to get this out of the way, I don’t condone violence and understand that it is a serious issue, however, if a football player has this trait there are likely ways to channel that aggression and anger in a positive way on the football field – especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Let’s just look at a handful of examples in recent history of how this has translated into success on the football field.

Ever hear of a guy named Ray Lewis? He’s has a decent little NFL career…13 Pro Bowls, 10 All-Pro selections and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. When he finally hangs up his cleats he may be viewed as the best middle linebacker of all-time. He’s known for his intense play, big hits and trash-talking during games. It’s been a long time, but football fans may remember a run-in Lewis has with the law back in 2000 when he was involved in a fight outside of a bar in Atlanta which left two people dead. Lewis was only convicted of obstruction of justice in the incident, and didn’t have a hand in the death of the people, but was involved in the altercation. Before that incident, while in college at the University of Miami, he was twice accused of hitting women even though charges were never brought against him. This aggressive side may have caused him to slip in the draft finally being selected at #26 overall.

A much more recent example of this took place in last year’s draft. The Cleveland Browns’ top two picks in last season’s draft, DT Phil Taylor from Baylor and DE Jabaal Sheard from Pittsburgh, both had run-ins with violence in their past. Taylor started his college career at Penn State but was kicked off the team after his involvement in a fight at the student union as well as an similar incident at a pool party while in school. Sheard was involved in a major fight in Pittsburgh while in college where he ended up throwing a man through a glass door while resisting arrest from a police officer. What both of these young men did aren’t positive things you want to be known for, but they are lapses in judgement that thousands of teenagers and college-aged kids make every year. The big question then becomes, will the kid learn something from the incident so that it doesn’t happen in the future? So far with Taylor and Sheard, they appear to have put those issues in the rear-view mirror and are focusing that aggression on opposing quarterbacks and running backs in the NFL. Both Taylor and Sheard had above average seasons as rookies (on a bad team) and showed many flashes of brilliance throughout the season.

In looking at this year’s draft here is one player who has been pegged with the same character concerns – Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict. A guy I love listening to and who has an unparalleled history of evaluating college players, Gil Brandt, has this to say about Burfict, “…was the most highly recruited player ever to land at ASU. However, his anger management issues often overshadowed his outstanding ability.” I haven’t gotten to see much or hear anything from Burfict yet prior to the draft but he’s one guy I’d keep my eye on if I’m a team looking for a LB. I’d much rather have LB’s on my team with a mean streak as opposed to finess guys!

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There is nothing perfect about Northeast Ohio’s beloved Cleveland Browns, but here is my “In a perfect world” scenario related to free agency for Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and the boys for this off-season. I’ll follow this up with a “Perfect World” article about the Browns’ draft plans later this week or early next week.

First, I think they’ve taken a step in the right direction by hiring an experienced offensive coordinator in Brad Childress. He didn’t handle being a head coach very well, but if he can focus on the offense and playcalling I think that’s one positive so far.

The first item of business for the Brownies is looking at their own crop of potential free agents. At first glance there are only a few names that stick out as “must sign” kind of players. First on that list is MLB D’Qwell Jackson who may be one of the more underrated LB’s in the game. The Browns signed him to a one-year deal this season after missing two straight years so let’s hope he remembers that and gives the team a bit of a hometown discount for their loyalty. Next up, Peyton Hillis. After dominating in 2010 he fell off the wagon and was injured for most of 2011. He’s not a perfect fit in a true West Coast offense (ex: Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy, Ricky Watters, Roger Craig) but when he’s on I think he’s a top 10 RB in the league. I think they Browns will try to bring him back at a reasonable number. For some comparison, look at the deal the Giants gave Ahmad Bradshaw last year (click here to see) and if Hillis would take a similar deal I think the Browns are in good shape. Two down and a couple to go. Kicker Phil Dawson played on a one-year “Franchise Tag” deal last year but that’s not happening this year. He’s 37 years old, but is a solid and reliable kicker. If he’s willing to sign for around $2-$2.5 million per year for two years I think the team pulls the trigger. If not, unfortunately it’s time to let him go and maybe find a young kicker late in the draft or free agency. Finally, the other guys who may warrant consideration are CB Dmitri Patterson and S/CB Mike Adams. If it were me, I’d show Adams the door and see if we can bring back Patterson as he played the Nickel corner very well and is a solid backup on the outside.

Now on to bigger and more exciting topics…unrestricted free agency. The Browns aren’t known to make splashes in free agency, partially because the team didn’t want to waste money when they knew they weren’t going to win and partially because it’s hard to get players to come play in NE Ohio without overpaying them. With a projected $30 million or more in cap space there’s no excuse for not trying this year. For me, priority #1 has to be WR. This is a good year to be in the market for a WR as there are several really good ones who’ll potentially be on the market. They include, Wes Welker, Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson, Stevie Johnson, Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem, and Darrin Chiaverini. (The true Browns fans will get that joke). As a GM I’d go after DeSean Jackson or Wes Welker first as both are good short route runners and yards-after-the-catch guys who are necessary in the West Coast offense. Jackson can stretch the field too whereas Welker is somewhat limited there. Then, I’d look at either Vincent Jackson or Dwayne Bowe who both are big, tall receivers but also have some diva qualities about them too. I think both of these guys are going to get overpaid which leads to the next player on my wish list…Stevie Johnson. His arrow is pointing up but he may be looking for big money too. He’s young, has good hands, and would instantly be the #1 WR in Cleveland from day one. In the end I don’t know if we get any of these guys, but I’d be hoping for either DeSean Jackson and/or Stevie Johnson and I’d be happy.

The other three areas the Browns would love to address in free agency are Right Defensive End, Linebacker, and Right Tackle.  Unfortunately the tackle market is thin this off-season with Jared Gaither and Demetrius Bell headlining the list. Plus, how have our last few free agent RT’s worked out…Kevin Shaffer, John St. Clair and Tony Pashos. Yikes. Let’s leave this one to the draft which then leads us to finding a DE to play opposite of Jabaal Sheard. Sheard was a beast from about week four through the end of the season last year. With someone who has a pulse on the other side of the line from him he’ll be even better. Two big names would be Mario Williams ($$$) from the Texans and Robert Mathis from the Colts. The Browns have the money to sign Williams, but would he come to Cleveland? Probably not, but fans can dream. Mathis is intriguing but it really depends how much money he’ll be looking for. Another guy who’d be a great fit would be John Abraham from the Falcons but his downside is that he’s no spring chicken so he’d be a two-year player probably. In the end, the Browns probably strike out here and look to fill this hole in the draft too. Finally, the Browns starting LB’s last season weren’t terrible with Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong and D’Qwell Jackson but they had no depth. Fujita started looking old last year and is probably a fourth LB at this point in his career. Possible upgrades include Leroy Hill from the Seahawks or even Ahmad Brooks from the 49ers. Hill averages around 90 tackles and three or four sacks per season and would be a great fit. Brooks is more of a third down specialist but would help improve the Browns’ pass rush.

In summary, if someone the football gods can be good to Cleveland one time and the Browns can come away from free agency with D’Qwell Jackson, Peyton Hillis, DeSean Jackson or Stevie Johnson and Leroy Hill they’d already be a drastically better team on paper heading into 2012. What does that get them? Not much, just ask the Redskins, but it would give fans something to look forward to come September.

Finally, in a bit of self-promotion, if you don’t know about my other website please feel free to check it out at www.neilstein.com. I focus 95% of that website to the NFL Draft and items pertaining to the Browns and their plans for the NFL Draft. It’s a work in progress, but right now you can check out my article on what the Browns should do with their two, first-round draft picks this year. My plan is to trade up…not with the #4 pick but with the #22 pick. Click here to read more

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Typically this time of year all you’re hearing about for two straight weeks is talk about the Super Bowl. This year there’s a little twist which is centered not on the Super Bowl itself, but instead around the host city’s biggest celebrity and athlete…Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning. By now you’ve heard many different scenarios discussed about Manning’s future as well as the drama with him and owner Jim Irsay. Here are some scenarios to think about as this saga unfolds along with how and where I think he’ll ultimately end up for 2012.

1.  Manning Retires – Manning may decide his long-term health is more important than adding a few more dollars to his bank account.

2. Peyton Manning may think he has one or two seasons left in the tank and doesn’t want to leave Indianapolis. He’ll never see the $28 million bonus the Colts owe him in early March, but he may get “cut” and turn around and re-sign a new one or two-year deal with the team.

3. Because many of you who’ll read this are fellow Browns fans I’ll humor you with this scenario. Manning would come to Cleveland and immediately re-invigorate the franchise. He’s been successful with second, third and fourth string WR’s in the past and since we’re a team full of #3 and #4 receivers it won’t be any change. We could sign a big name in free agency (Marques Colston or DeSean Jackson) and immediately have a legit offense. Oh, did I mention we have 3 draft picks in the first 40 picks too? Sounds pretty good eh? Don’t hold your breath.

4. Here’s where I ultimately think he may end up and it’s a team you don’t hear anyone else talking about…the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars played most of 2011 with first round pick Blaine Gabbert at QB. He was the only QB statistically worse than Tim Tebow last season…what does that tell you? They have a new owner who’s likely going to move the team to L.A. at some point and would love nothing more than making a splash bigger than his mustache (hands down the best mustache in the NFL…better than Brad Childress or Andy Reid). They have a new offensive-minded head coach in Mike Mularkey which Manning should love as he knows a little something about offense himself. Also, the Jags have been struggling like no other team in the league to sell tickets. You can’t tell me bringing in Peyton Manning wouldn’t immediately help sell TENS OF THOUSANDS of tickets for the next year or two and instantly make your team relevant again.

Time will tell what happens, but you heard it here first if he end up as a Jaguar. Selfishly I’d love to see the Browns sign him, but who’s the last big-name free agent to EVER come to any Cleveland team? It’s not going to be Manning either.

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Another week another heartbreaking loss by the Browns. Last week I gave my two cents on the Browns offense so far this year and now I’d like to share my thoughts on the Browns defense thus far.

Going into the season I don’t think many fans had huge expectations out of the Browns defense. With the lockout-shortened off-season, a new defensive coordinator (Dick Jauron) and switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense  the odds were stacked against them from the get-go. While the dismal 4-10 record looks awful, it’s not due to lack of solid performances from many players on the Browns D.

Looking at the defensive line, that was probably the biggest weakness heading into last year’s NFL Draft. With the switch from the 3-4 to a 4-3 there’s an immediate need for more defensive linemen. Then, you look at what the Browns had to begin with and you realize it was a HUGE need. Going into the season the Browns only had starting DT Ahtyba Rubin under contract. They resigned reserve DL Jayme Mitchell who was a nobody before this season and that was about it. The Browns then spent their first two draft picks on linemen – DT Phil Taylor and DR Jabaal Sheard. Both have been GREAT at times during the season. Sheard started slow, but when he moved from RE to LE he flourished racking up 48 tackles, 7.5 sacks and a whopping 5 forced fumbles with two games to go. Taylor is more of a run-stuffer at DT but his numbers are solid too. 52 tackles, 4 sacks and a forced fumble of his own. The only weakness I see heading into next season is finding a starting RE and getting depth along the line.

From the line we move back to the linebackers. This is an area which had zero depth going into the season with starters WLB Chris Gocong, MLB D’Qwell Jackson and SLB Scott Fujuta.  Jackson is having a Pro-Bowl worthy year with 138 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 1 interception and forced fumble. The Browns MUST re-sign Jackson going into 2012!!! Gocong has been solid and versatile all year but really struggles in pass coverage. Finally, as much as I like Fujita as a leader of the defense and a tough guy, he’s showing his age and is now done for the year due to concussions. The Browns desperately need LB’s next season with a starter to replace Fujita and depth behind all three.

Finally we review the defensive backs. This is an area which was fairly solid going into the season with a Pro-Bowl caliber CB in Joe Haden, a surprising SS T.J. Ward and the veteran CB Sheldon Brown. The Browns thankfully jettisoned Eric Wright this off-season (ask the Lions how they like him) and replaced him with former Eagle CB Dmitri Patterson. Haden has had another Pro-Bowl type season and Patterson has been solid in the slot for most of the season. Sheldon Brown is starting to look old and may need to move to Safety in the near future. The biggest hole for the Browns DB’s has to be Free Safety. Mike Adams makes one great play and then makes three bonehead plays. Usama Young is afraid to make a tackle and really hasn’t shown much of anything all year. I do like what I’ve seen out of 7th round pick Eric Hagg so far, but he was hurt most of the year. Finally, Buster Skrine has been a pleasant surprise as the Dime CB and may have a future as a slot-corner in the near future. Looking ahead, T.J. Ward needs to get healthy and I think they need to look at another CB in the draft.

In summary, I think the Browns have a lot of really good and a couple of potentially great individuals on defense. The biggest problem is absolutely no depth which is apparent in the 4th quarter of every game. I think with another good draft by Tom Heckert and a full off-season under Dick Jauron that the Browns defense can been good enough to finally compete in the AFC North and is definitely heading in the right direction. In the draft, keep an eye on LB’s and DE’s with the Browns second First Round pick or their Second Round pick.

This isn’t related to defense…but I LOVE Baylor QB Robert Griffin III. After watching more of his highlights, listening to him talk to the media, and seeing what he accomplished at Baylor I want him with our Top-Five pick!!!

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