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Twelve intriguing regular-season games

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Schedule-release day! It’s one of the sneaky-good pro football events of the year.

When I ponder the schedule, I look for clues for where a team may soar, wobble or plummet. The following 12 games all look like they could teach us something important about the teams on the field. I generally focused on games earlier in the season than later; it’s tough enough to speculate on how a team could play in September, but projecting a team’s late-December form is even more challenging.

Here are 12 games that particularly interest me:

49ers at Seahawks (Sept. 15) — Appointment viewing. End of story. To paraphrase Mike Mayock, put on the tape of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick from the postseason. Just do it. I’ll be watching for many reasons, but mainly to see whether either West power looks significantly better than the other.

Giants at Panthers (Sept. 22) — This is the sort of game the upstart Panthers will win if they are going anywhere. And it’s precisely the sort of game Tom Coughlin’s team pulls out when in top form.

Lions at Packers (Oct. 6) — The Lions have the offensive might to give any defense fits and were a legitimate playoff entrant two years ago. Can they bounce back after a disappointing 2012 performance? This looks like a big class test for them.

Seahawks at Colts (Oct. 6) — I love out-of-conference battles between two talented clubs. A win for either team is a real nice item to have on the résumé. The Seahawks are capable of winning in a tough venue, but the Colts were very, very tough at home a season go.

Redskins at Cowboys (Oct. 13) — Dallas did not fare well in its first two tries against Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris.

Eagles at Buccaneers (Oct. 13) — The Buccaneers had a strong run defense a season ago, and the Eagles’ Chip Kelly-designed offense is talent- and potential-laden. This should be fun.

Ravens at Steelers (Oct. 20) — For years, this has been one of the NFL’s compelling rivalries, and doesn’t figure to change in 2013, not with Baltimore the depending champion and Pittsburgh trying to regain its footing among the AFC elite. The Steelers won in Baltimore last season, one of the highlights of a disappointing campaign.

Dolphins at Patriots (Oct. 27) — Last year, the Bills were the chic pick to make a run at New England’s AFC East supremacy. This year, the Dolphins are the East sleeper. Can Miami live up to the hype? The Dolphins are likely to be underdogs in Foxborough; if that’s the case, how the Dolphins play may trump whether they win or lose, in my view. If the Dolphins give a strong Patriots team a game, it’s a good sign for Miami.

Colts at Texans (Nov. 3) — For the Texans, getting to the playoffs doesn’t constitute great success anymore. For the Colts, a step backwards after a surprising 2012 season would be a big disappointment.

Chiefs at Broncos (Nov. 17) — Who’s going to push Denver in the AFC West? Kansas City might have the best shot. Let’s see how the Chiefs measure up.

Saints at Falcons (Nov. 21) — A weakened Saints team managed to split the season series in 2012. Now, Sean Payton is back, and New Orleans could be ready to seriously contend once again in the NFC South. With both teams again likely to field strong offenses, the play of the defenses could tell the tale.

Broncos at Patriots (Nov. 24) — Including the playoffs, this is the fourth meeting between the teams in the last three seasons — and Denver has had no good answers for New England’s powerful offense. The Patriots have won all three meetings, averaging 39 points in the victories. The Broncos have the ability to be strong contenders, but their problems with the Patriots can’t be overlooked.

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Teddy Bridgewater getting more comfortable as a leader

<> at Barnstable Brown House on May 1, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. Getty Images

Once the pre-draft hype subsided and he got on the field, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater made plenty of noise last year.

But this year, he may make even more, of a different kind.

The second-year quarterback seems ready to assert himself as the Vikings’ leader even more, as teammates are expecting him to take a larger and louder role.

Guys kind of push you into that leadership role,” Bridgewater said, via Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I’m a young guy still on the team, but guys are pushing me forward to say something in the huddle, or break the team down, or break the offense down.

“That just gives you that confidence in yourself, confidence in your leadership — and I’ve been extremely comfortable doing that.”

Bridgewater is a soft-spoken kid, who showed impressive poise once he took over the starting job four games into last season. But with an offseason under his belt to grow, he’s apparently more comfortable in a forward role.

“[He’s] becoming more of a leader, and you can tell that this is more of his team as we continue to go,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s a lot more vocal with the guys, as far as telling them where to go and what routes they should be running. He obviously has a better command of the offense, as well.”

While the Vikings are in the midst of a mess with running back Adrian Peterson, it helps having someone else on the offense who has enough credibility to lead the group. And having that player be your quarterback is better yet.

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Chris Chester scheduled to visit Eagles, Falcons

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Guard Chris Chester lost his job in Washington earlier this week, but he may not be unemployed for long.

Adam Caplan of ESPN reports that Chester has lined up visits with the Eagles and Falcons.

The Eagles know Chester well after facing the Redskins eight times in Chester’s four seasons with his old team. They released Todd Herremans early in the offseason and gave Evan Mathis the chance to shop himself in a trade, so they’re clearly open to making some changes on the interior of their offensive line. Mathis remains on the roster, but isn’t taking part in the team’s offseason work.

There’s familiarity with Chester in Atlanta as well. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan held the same job in Washington during Chester’s first three years with the Redskins and Chester could provide an upgrade on some of the current players vying for spots on the depth chart with the Falcons.

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Andre Johnson rejuvenated after frustrating final years in Houston

Jacksonville Jaguars v Houston Texans AP

Wide receiver Andre Johnson was released by the Texans in March, but he felt the end coming a few months before that.

Johnson said that he knew “deep down inside” that he wouldn’t be back with the Texans after the final game of the 2014 season even though he told reporters the opposite and those feelings became fact when he asked Houston to move him after coach Bill O’Brien laid out a limited role in the offense for the 2015 season. It was the last beat in a frustrating end to Johnson’s long and successful run with the team that took him third overall in the 2003 draft.

“Everyone saw the frustration the last few years,” Johnson said, via Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star. “Not only in me, but in my play on the field.”

It didn’t take long for Johnson to focus on the Colts as his next destination. He knew coach Chuck Pagano from the University of Miami and he spoke to running back Frank Gore about their shared belief that they could win a Super Bowl with Andrew Luck at quarterback.

Nothing’s changed since then other than Johnson’s renewed zest for the game. His mother and uncle both told Keefer that Johnson is happier now that he’s with the Colts and the hope in Indy is that the restoration of Johnson’s passion for football helps them make it to Santa Clara next February.

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Healthy scratch made Lance Moore want out of Pittsburgh

Moore Getty Images

Veteran receiver Lance Moore spent plenty of years — and caught plenty of passes — with the Saints. He spent one year in Pittsburgh. And it didn’t end well.

“I knew the day after the playoff loss that we had, I knew that I didn’t want to be there anymore,” Moore said recently, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “They made me inactive. And I knew at that point that the writing is on the wall. I could see what their future plans were for me; it was the first time in my career that I was a healthy inactive.”

Moore added that it “never quite clicked” for him and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With younger guys playing well, Moore ended up averaging one catch per game played — 14.

In Detroit, Moore returns to an offense similar to the one used by the Saints, given the presence of former Saints assistant Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator. Moore will be competing with Ryan Broyles and Jeremy Ross for the slot-receiver role, but Moore has new motivation after a failed year in Pittsburgh.

“I would say that I’ve never been so excited to go to practice, I’ve never been so excited to really just have another chance,” Moore said. “I’ve been in the league 11 years. I’ve been cut five times. You never really know when it’s going to be over, and I knew, in the back of my mind, that it wasn’t quite over, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d get an opportunity or get the right opportunity. I feel like things couldn’t have worked out any better for me, so I’m going to make the most of this opportunity.”

He’s only 31, and it’s possible Moore simply got lost in the shuffle last year. In Detroit, with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate and Eric Ebron as the primary options in the passing game, Moore could find a way to fill an important role as an underneath option making clutch catches that help move the chains.

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Bills meeting with Michael Buchanan

Michael Buchanan AP

The Bills are huddling with a player who has spent the last two seasons with a division rival.

Outside linebacker/defensive lineman Michael Buchanan, whom the Patriots waived earlier in May, is meeting with Buffalo on Friday, the club announced.

The 24-year-old Buchanan has recorded 11 tackles and two sacks in 18 regular season games since 2013, all with the Patriots, who drafted him in Round Seven two years ago. He spent the majority of the 2014 season on injured reserve. Buchanan (6-6, 255) played collegiately at Illinois.

If added to the Bills’ roster, Buchanan would likely vie for a reserve role at outside linebacker in the Bills’ 3-4 scheme.

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Broncos place Ryan Clady on injured reserve

Ryan Clady AP

Ryan Clady’s season is over.

The Broncos placed Clady on injured reserve on Friday, ruling him out for 2015. The Pro Bowl left tackle suffered a torn ACL on Wednesday. He will now have missed 30 of the last 48 regular season games because of injury.

Clady’s roster spot will be taken by veteran tackle Ryan Harris, who has signed with Denver, the club said Friday. The 30-year-old Harris began his career with Denver and played two seasons with Houston under now-Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak.

However, Harris has played right tackle throughout his career, which leaves rookie Ty Sambrailo and veteran Chris Clark among the in-house replacements for Clady.

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Riley Cooper: Suggestion that Chip Kelly’s racist is “upsetting”

Eagles Cooper Football AP

Eagles coach Chip Kelly didn’t have much to say about being accused of being racist by LeSean McCoy, other than that McCoy wouldn’t return his calls.

But a number of Eagles players said they thought their former teammate was wrong to go there, and that his assertions were baseless.

It’s definitely difficult and upsetting for sure,” Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper said, via Bob Grotz of the Delaware County Times. “I know [Kelly is] not like that.”

Of course, Cooper was the beneficiary of a pretty big second chance for his own unfortunate choice of words two years ago, but the Eagles have apparently embraced Cooper in the aftermath of it, or at least allowed him to move on.

But several of McCoy’s other former teammates said they didn’t understand why the running back chose to go that route.

“I think everything around here is equal,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “Everything around here is equal. Chip treats everybody the same. I don’t think there’s a difference. . . .

“I really don’t know what he said. I haven’t read it. I know LeSean. I mean, he’s a good friend. I still text him now and again and see from time to time. I just don’t want to get caught up in that. And I continue to see LeSean as a friend.”

But he and his friend do not see eye-to-eye on McCoy’s suggestion that Kelly had ulterior motives for the moves Kelly made.

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Report: Darren Sharper enters guilty plea on drug rape conspiracy charges

Darren Sharper AP

According to a published report, former NFL player and broadcaster Darren Sharper pled guilty in federal court in New Orleans on Friday to charges he schemed to drug and sexually assault three women.

According to the New Orleans Advocate, Sharper will be sentenced on August 20. Also, he is to plead guilty to three rape charges in Louisiana state court in June, per the report.

In March, Sharper agreed to plea deals to resolve charges against him in Arizona, California, Louisiana and Nevada.

All told, Sharper might serve as little as nine more years in prison in connection with a variety of rape and drug charges, but his plea agreement comes with a variety of strict conditions. Also, he is required to cooperate with authorities in other investigations, the Advocate notes.

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Byron Maxwell expects a third straight Super Bowl trip

Byron Maxwell AP

Cornerback Byron Maxwell has played in the last two Super Bowls and he doesn’t think his move from Seattle to Philadelphia is going to get in the way of a third straight trip to the NFL’s biggest game of the year.

Maxwell signed with an Eagles team that fell short of the playoffs in 2014, but told Jenny Vrentas of TheMMQB.com that he’s found the same “winning culture” that he experienced in with the Seahawks. He also said that he thinks his time in such a culture has him feeling like the Eagles are going to replace his old team as the tops in the NFC.

“Experience. Because I’ve been there before,” Maxwell said. “Knowing what it’s like if we go that far. Because we’re gonna go that far this year — meaning the playoffs and the Super Bowl. We’re gonna go that far. Hopefully that experience I already had, I can help them.”

Maxwell added that you “can take that as a guarantee” because he has “no choice but to think that way” heading into the season. Eagles fans, meanwhile, will have to hope that his big talk works out a bit better than the last time a new member of the team crowned himself and his teammates before the any games were played.

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PFT Live: DeVante Parker, Tevin Coleman

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Another week of PFT Live comes to an end on Friday and we’ll close things out with a pair of guests who are just getting started in the NFL.

Dolphins first-round pick DeVante Parker will join Mike Florio to talk about his first days as part of Miami’s reshaped wide receiver group. Parker, Kenny Stills and Greg Jennings have joined Jarvis Landry after an offseason of change and we’ll get Parker’s take on his new teammates, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Falcons running back Tevin Coleman will also stop by the show a few weeks after Atlanta made him a third-round pick. We’ll hear about his his initial impressions of coach Dan Quinn, fellow running back Devonta Freeman and more during his visit.

We also want to hear what PFT Planet thinks. Email questions at any time via the O’Reilly Auto Parts Ask the Pros inbox or get in touch on Twitter at @ProFootballTalk to let us know what’s on your mind.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can listen to all three hours live via the various NBC Sports Radio affiliates, through the links at PFT, or with the NBC Sports Radio app. You can also watch a simulcast of the first hour of the show by clicking right here.

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Vikings’ special teams coach sees an extra-point advantage outdoors

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The Vikings are a cold-weather team this season at TCF Bank Stadium, playing their home games outside before moving back into a dome next year. And Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer likes it that way.

Priefer says the new extra point rule will make kicks tougher on cold days, and he thinks the Vikings will be better suited to those cold days than their opponents.

“I’m excited about it. I think it will be a home-field advantage for us because it’s nasty,” Priefer told the Pioneer Press. “TCF is a nasty place to kick in November and December, and our guys will be ready for it. We’ll be used to it, absolutely.”

Priefer did say, however, that he has his work cut out for him with the new rule that allows defenses to return blocked extra points for two points.

“Last year we gave up two blocks, and we can’t do that this year,” said Priefer. “That’s going to be our emphasis all spring and all summer long.”

The difference between a 20-yard kick for an extra point and a 33-yard kick for an extra point isn’t big to an NFL kicker. But in a one-point game, this rule change could be very big. It’s certainly big enough that it has every NFL special teams coach thinking.

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Story of James Wright testament to LSU’s sheer talent, Bengals’ scouting

James Wright AP

Odell Beckham Jr. Jeremy Hill. Zach Mettenberger. Jarvis Landry. La’El Collins. Alfred Blue.

All were contributors on offense for LSU two years ago, and all have spots in the NFL. Beckham, the Giants’ leading receiver as a rookie, is already a superstar, while Landry hauled in 84 passes for Miami. Hill, meanwhile, emerged as the Bengals’ featured back down the stretch.

However, another member of that 2013 LSU offense is also quietly trying to make a name for himself: second-year Bengals wide receiver James Wright, a seventh-round pick of Cincinnati in 2014 despite not catching a single pass in his final collegiate season.

In a story published Friday, Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com noted that Wright’s blocking, special teams play, pro day workout and pre-draft visit were key in Cincinnati’s decision to take a flier on the wideout, who hauled in just 25 passes for 304 yards and no TDs in four seasons in Baton Rouge.

And the move appears to have worked out well.

The 23-year-old Wright played in 11 games for Cincinnati as a rookie, catching five passes before suffering a season-ending knee injury. However, he was back for OTAs this week, and he is seeing time at all of the WR spots, per the club’s website.

“I have a lot of trust in James with his speed, athleticism and toughness,” Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told Bengals.com. “He knows how to play. He knows what to do. He does it with confidence.”

And he appears to be proof that if you do your job well, no matter where it is on the field, the NFL might just take notice.

The Bengals particularly might be paying attention, given their thorough scouting of an LSU team with so much starpower right at the surface.

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Packers will keep Clay Matthews moving on defense

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Clay Matthews had to learn to play inside linebacker on the fly last year when the Packers stuck him there in the middle of the season for a game against the Bears, but Matthews handled the move well enough that it remains part of the team’s plans for the 2015 season as well.

Matthews and Sam Barrington were playing inside with the first team during Thursday’s organized team activity and Matthews says that the practice time has him “actually learning why I’m doing certain things” at the position. The Packers are quick to say that they aren’t going to play Matthews exclusively at that spot, however, and defensive coordinator Dom Capers said the plan is to keep offenses on their toes.

“It makes it harder for people to prepare for you,” Capers said, via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We’ve tried to do that since we’ve been here….I felt at the time we drafted him, watching him work, that he’d be a Pro Bowler outside, inside. It didn’t make a difference where you put him: he was going to have a significant impact.”

Matthews had 8.5 of his 11 sacks in the second half of last season, so the trips inside didn’t neutralize his ability to get after the quarterback. Matthews said he viewed the shift as playing the same position at “two different spots” and it looks like something that the team’s opponents will have to be ready for again in 2015.

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Fully-guaranteed contracts could cause problems for teams, players

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It’s easy to say that NFL contracts should be fully guaranteed. In theory, every player should want that.

In practice, fully-guaranteed contracts could create plenty of problems, both for teams and for players. Especially for younger players trying either to get a job or to get paid a fair salary.

Assume, for example, that Adrian Peterson’s contract were fully guaranteed through 2017. With $12.75 million committed this year, $14.75 million committed next year, and $16.75 million committed in 2017, the Vikings would have far less flexibility to pay other players under the hard-cap system the NFL uses.

And if Peterson’s skills were to suddenly decline in 2015, the Vikings would be stuck with a guy who is no longer earning his keep, but in turn unable to properly compensate the player(s) who would be carrying the load on his behalf.

The truth is that if the NFL had fully-guaranteed contracts, the Vikings never would have loaded so much money into the last two years of the Peterson deal. The contract either would have been shorter in duration, or it would have paid out far fewer dollars beyond the running back witching hour of his 30th birthday.

Having NFL contracts that aren’t fully guaranteed ensures that the game will remain closer to a meritocracy, with the best players getting the most money and earning the playing time. If/when those players are no longer earning the playing time, they’ll no longer be getting the dollars. Which is how the system currently works.

Already, too many players who don’t deserve to be in the starting lineup up get those spots at least in part to justify their contracts and/or their draft status. Fully-guaranteed contracts would give teams another reason to keep trotting out a player who may no longer be better than his backup, because if the highly-paid player with the guaranteed contract isn’t playing, the fans and the media will have another reason to lobby the owner to fire the guy who signed the player to that contract in the first place.

In a cap-driven system, fully-guaranteed contracts can become as problematic as the pre-2011 system for paying guys taken at the top of the draft. Previously, unproven players who never became contributors sucked millions out of the system that could have gone to players who deserve it. Fully-guaranteed contracts would potentially do the same thing on the back end of a career, allowing a player who isn’t what he used to be to coast to the finish line, collecting checks that otherwise should go to the guys who are getting the job done.

With an ever-growing cap and a spending minimum that keeps pushing higher and higher, the players will get paid. It’s better for the players who are contributing to get paid. Fully-guaranteed contracts could keep that from happening.

With fully-guaranteed contracts, some teams would likely insist on shorter-term deals. And that would give players more flexibility to change teams or to get more money. But it also would make it harder for players to receive a major, multi-year, life-changing contract, because teams won’t want to put huge dollars into a contract if the team has no way out if the player isn’t earning money that could otherwise go to someone who is.

Non-guaranteed contracts give players who have gotten past the guaranteed portion of the contract a clear reason to keep working hard and to keep fending off the guy who is trying to take his job. If every year of the salary is guaranteed, the player at some point could lose his edge — and the team would be paying a lot of money to a guy who simply isn’t earning it.

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Steve Smith: I won’t be playing at 40

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Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith never gave serious thought to retirement this offseason after catching 79 passes for 1,065 yards in 2014, but he has given some thought to when he might bring his playing days to an end.

Smith turned 36 this month and he said Thursday that he can see the finish line coming in the next few years. As Smith explained, he doesn’t plan to follow Jerry Rice’s lead and play until he’s 42 years old.

“Jerry Rice is obviously the greatest wide receiver to ever play, and I really don’t have the family structure to chase 40, to be honest,” Smith said, via the Baltimore Sun. “I have got a lot of things on my to-do list that don’t have anything to do with football. I’m going to take it day by day, but I will not be playing until I’m 40.”

Smith remained productive last season, but he did average six more yards per catch in the first half of the season than he did in the second half, which may explain why coach John Harbaugh has talked about limiting the veteran’s snaps in 2015. That may not be the easiest thing to pull off given the makeup of the receiving corps, which added Breshad Perriman while losing Torrey Smith and doesn’t have anyone with anything close to Smith’s track record as a reliable target.

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