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Seven schedule hot spots

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We reported last week that the NFL plans to release the 2014 regular-season schedule on Tuesday, with the caveat that it could be nudged to Wednesday or Thursday.

Regardless of the moment the dates and times for 256 contests become known, we’ll instantly scan the list seven specific pieces of information.

1.  The Thursday Night Opener.

The Seahawks will host the first game of the season on Thursday night, September 4.  They’ll play the 49ers, Rams, Cardinals, Packers, Cowboys, Giants, Broncos, or Raiders.

I think it’ll be the Packers; PFT Planet picked the 49ers in the aftermath of the Super Bowl.

2.  The Sunday Night Opener.

The first full day of regular-season action usually is capped with a quality game on NBC.  Last year, the Giants played the Cowboys in Dallas.  The year before, Peyton Manning made his debut with Denver against the Steelers.

This year, the 49ers open a new stadium, not too far down the road from where the NBC equipment and crew will be on Thursday night.  While that would take San Fran out of the mix to open the season in Seattle, the opening Sunday night game could feature the Cardinals, Rams, Redskins, Eagles, Chiefs, Chargers, or Bears visiting the so-called Field of Jeans.

3.  The Monday Night Doubleheader.

Since 2006, ESPN has launched the season with a six-plus-hour football extravaganza.  Usually, it’s an East Coast game at 7:00 p.m. ET and a West Coaster at 10:00 p.m. ET.

These games usually have a more meat-and-potatoes feel.  Either way, it’s two more games of football to end the first week of the season.

4.  The Week Two Thursday Night Game.

With the first half of the Thursday night package simulcast in 2014 on CBS, the NFL reportedly plans to pick marquee games for the maximized audience that comes with broadcast TV.

Which means that there could be a very good game played in the first short-week contest of the season.

5.  The Thanksgiving Games.

Reportedly, the Bills will face the Lions to start the day.  (It’s either Buffalo or Miami this year, because the game will be televised by CBS.)

The Cowboys will host the second game, against one of their six NFC opponents:  the Redskins, Eagles, Giants, Cardinals, Saints, and 49ers.

The third game has no set rotation, although the Ravens have been involved for two of the last three years.  Since the nightcap moved to NBC in 2012, the third Thanksgiving game has featured division rivals, a technique that helps keep the game intense even if the records of the teams involved aren’t stellar.

6.  The Flex Games.

From Week 11 through Week 16, the NFL has the ability to swap out the games earmarked for Sunday night on NBC for better contests.  Games nevertheless are pegged for the spots in advance, and in most cases those games end up being very good games without the need for a flex.

7.  Week 17.

The last week of the season features each team playing a game in the same division.  Typically, all 16 games are played on Sunday, with no pre-set game on NBC.  Instead, the league picks the final game of the season the prior week, hopeful to select a matchup that will have clear playoff implications independent of the other 15 games.

For the last three years, the last game of the season has been the de facto NFC East championship game.  In 2011, the Cowboys lost to the Giants.  In 2012, the Cowboys lost to the Redskins.  In 2013, the Cowboys lost to the Eagles.  This year, it could be back to Giants-Cowboys.

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Report: Texans G.M. prefers Khalil Mack to Jadeveon Clowney

Khalil Mack AP

When the longer-than-ever pre-draft process began, the general assumption was that the Texans would draft a quarterback.

Then, as everyone began to realize what a generational talent Jadeveon Clowney was, the pendulum of conventional wisdom swung that way.

Turns out, neither may be the case in two and a half weeks when the draft finally starts with the Texans on the clock.

According to Peter King of TheMMQB.com, one “Friend of Rick Smith” (the Texans’ General Manager) said that Smith preferred Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack to Clowney, but his preference in quarterbacks was unclear.

While Clowney might be a better fit in a 4-3 defense than in a 3-4 such as Houston’s, that’s still a bold call.

In fact, it’s almost like the kind of thing that gets out there on purpose this time of year, as the Texans hope that someone calls a Friend of Rick Smith and says “Hey, if you don’t want that pick, we do.”

We only have 17 more days to wait to find out.

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Jeff Fisher: Everyone says they’re ahead of schedule, Bradford really is

Sam Bradford, Jeff Fisher AP

In the last few years, so many players recovering from torn ACLs have been described as “ahead of schedule” that it seems like everyone in the league has begun viewing ACL tears through rose-colored glasses. But in the case of Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, coach Jeff Fisher says he really, truly is ahead of schedule.

“You’re not gonna hear a head coach say he has a player on his team that’s not ahead of schedule coming off an ACL. Everybody says they’re all ahead of schedule. But he is realistically way ahead of schedule. He’s working hard,” Fisher said of Bradford, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Still, a torn ACL is serious business, and when the Rams open their offseason program today, Bradford won’t be able to do everything. Bradford is, however, on pace to be throwing during Organized Team Activities.

“Sam’s in a very good place considering what happened last year,” Fisher said. “I thought he was off to a great start. Had he stayed healthy his projected numbers could’ve been quite impressive. He’s worked hard through the process, and I would expect him at some point to be throwing in OTAs.”

Bradford tore his ACL six months ago, on October 20.

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Rams could be planning to draft a quarterback

Murray AP

At the Scouting Combine in February, Rams G.M. Les Snead told NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk that there’s no way his team would take a quarterback with the second overall pick in the 2014 draft.

That doesn’t mean the Rams aren’t thinking about beefing up the position later.

As explained by Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Rams are “strongly considering” drafting a quarterback next month.  They’ve been spending time eyeballing the likes of Pitt quarterback Tom Savage, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (pictured), SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert, Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd.

While the Rams by all appearances remain committed to Sam Bradford, he’s recovering from a torn ACL and under contract for only two more years.  Likewise, backup Shaun Hill has signed a deal that covers only one year.

If they land a rookie who develop quickly and quietly, it’s possible that, come next year, the Rams may be rethinking their commitment to Bradford.

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Josh McCown sees young QBs as “nice kids,” ready to be a mentor

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Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown was brought in to be the starter, but he knows it may just be a matter of time before he’s replaced by a younger player, perhaps one the Bucs draft next month.

And McCown is fine with that. The Buccaneers have brought in some young quarterbacks for visits, and McCown likes what he sees from them.

They all seem like nice kids. They look so young,” McCown told the Tampa Bay Times. “It was cool to say hello to them; just briefly with Johnny [Manziel] and Teddy [Bridgewater] and Jimmy [Garoppolo]. Just, ‘Hey. How’s it going?’ and wish them well. It’s funny. You look at them, and you think back a few years and remember how fast it can go.”

The Bucs have another “nice kid” currently on the roster in Mike Glennon, and McCown will mentor Glennon as well. While McCown was out of the league in 2012 he briefly served as a high school coach, so he has experience as a mentor, and that’s a part of the job he welcomes. Even if the better he does mentoring, the sooner he could lose his job as the Bucs’ starter.

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One owner says Trump’s confirmation wouldn’t be a slam dunk

Trump AP

Recently, an NFL ownership-level source told PFT that it could be difficult to muster nine votes to keep Donald Trump out of the world’s most exclusive club of billionaires.  Another owner has told Gary Myers of the New York Daily News something very different.

He did try to bring the NFL down,” the unnamed owner told Myers.  “Certainly, a lot of owners aren’t around anymore.  Maybe some of the new guys wouldn’t bear the same type of resentment that some of the older guys would.  Do you think he would be a good partner for us or be somewhat of a maverick and be in it for himself?  All questions that have to be asked.  It’s not just the USFL stuff.  Who knows how serious he is.  He likes to have his name out there.  Let’s put it this way:  I don’t think his confirmation would be a slam dunk.”

Myers notes that 15 of the NFL’s 32 teams are still owned by the same person or family who owned those teams when Trump and his USFL cronies filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league.  Of the 32 teams, 24 owners must approve the sale of the Bills to Trump.  And Trump arguably has given some of the owners more incentive to oppose him with the intelligence-insulting claim that the USFL, not Trump, sued the NFL.

The AFL, with owners including the late Ralph Wilson, once battled the NFL toe-to-toe for players and fans and attention.  Ultimately, the AFL and NFL put their differences behind them and made a stronger league.  Trump would be wise to own what he did 30 years ago, and to hope that the owners who vividly recall the battles of the 1980s would be willing to treat Trump the way the AFL owners ultimately were treated.

“[Trump] said a lot of stupid things, and a lot of us still remember it,” said the unnamed owner, who reportedly laughed at Trump’s claim that he didn’t sue the NFL.  “If he ends up being the only guy interested in buying the Bills, then he could be it. I know Jon Bon Jovi is a serious contender. I think there will be some competition.”

Bon Jovi may be a serious contender, but he may not have the cash.  Trump apparently has the cash, but it’s unclear whether he’s serious about buying the Bills or whether he’s simply serious about generating free publicity by talking about buying the Bills.

Either way, if he’s going to try to buy the Bills, Trump’s best move would be to quit talking and start writing a check.

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Marcus Lattimore: “I’m ready”

Marcus Lattimore

A year after the 49ers took him in the fourth round of the NFL draft, running back Marcus Lattimore says he’s healthy enough in recovery from the gruesome knee injury that ended his college career that he could take the field today.

Lattimore said his next steps aren’t about rehabbing his knee, they’re just about convincing 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh that he deserves significant playing time.

“If he wants to put me in, he’ll put me in,” Lattimore told GoGamecocks.com. “If I prove it in practice, I don’t think there’s no excuse why I can’t play. I’m ready.”

The knee injury Lattimore suffered in 2012 was so serious that sitting out his rookie season, as he did last year, was far from his biggest concern. When he first got hurt, Lattimore feared he’d never play football again.

“After my injury, I just wanted to walk again,” Lattimore said. “It was tough, very tough. We’re a playoff team, so we play 20-plus games. Being on that sideline, we got so close to the Super Bowl title the last three years. But I’m blessed to be in this situation. Never would have thought in a million years I’d be in this situation.”

Lattimore has heard the reports that backup running back LaMichael James is not in the 49ers’ long-term plans, which means Lattimore would move up to third on the depth chart behind Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.

“If that happens, it does put me in that No. 3 spot,” Lattimore said. “But I’ve just got to go in there and work hard. I can pass-protect and run the ball. I’ve got to show that.”

If he can run now the way he ran at South Carolina, Lattimore will show a lot in San Francisco this year.

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Manziel worked out for Browns Saturday, will meet with them this week

Johnny Manziel AP

It took the Browns some time to get around to checking out Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, but they’ll have plenty of information about one of the draft’s top signal callers by the end of the week.

Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the Browns watched Manziel work out in College Station, Texas on Saturday, giving them a taste of what they missed at Manziel’s pro day earlier this offseason. Schefter also reports that Manziel will be in Cleveland for a meeting with Browns brass during the week.

Once that’s complete, the Browns will have met with and/or worked out all of the top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft. There have been reports that Fresno State’s Derek Carr has caught the team’s eye, but any final decision will likely have to wait until the Browns have a full picture of what Manziel brings to the table.

With the fourth and 26th picks in the first round and three more picks in the next two rounds, the Browns have plenty of options when it comes to adding a quarterback to compete with Brian Hoyer for the starting job. The audiences with Manziel should play a big role in which of those options they wind up choosing.

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Nick Foles on DeSean Jackson: It’s surprising, but it’s a business

DeSean Jackson

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles didn’t expect to lose his No. 1 receiver, DeSean Jackson, and didn’t see it coming before the Eagles sent Jackson packing.

You know, it’s surprising,” Foles told CSNPhilly.com. “But at the same time, you learn that it’s a business. It’s a tough business, at times. We develop a lot of friendships on a team and I’ve had many of my close teammates let go. It’s very tough, but at the same time, you know it’s part of the game, part of the business.”

Despite talk that Jackson was a trouble maker in the locker room, Foles said he never saw any of that.

“He was a great teammate to me,” Foles said. “We had a great relationship on and off the field. Everybody has other things going on, but to me personally, I really enjoyed playing with him and I’m excited that he landed on his feet. He’s a heck of a player.”

Now he’ll be a heck of a player for Philadelphia’s NFC East rival in Washington.

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Dolphins’ interest in receivers raises questions about Wallace’s future

Mike Wallace

The Dolphins have denied reports that they want to trade wide receiver Mike Wallace, and it appears highly unlikely that Wallace will play anywhere other than Miami this season. But there are big questions about whether Wallace has a future in Miami beyond 2014.

The latest question comes from Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, who reports that the Dolphins are closely scrutinizing several receivers they could take in the first or second round, including LSU’s Odell Beckham, USC’s Marqise Lee, Mississippi’s Donte Moncrief, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin. Jackson adds that “if the Dolphins do add a receiver in the first three rounds, it will raise questions about their intentions with Wallace in 2015 and beyond.”

The reality is that Dolphins General Manager Dennis Hickey probably doesn’t have any intentions with Wallace in 2015 and beyond. Hickey wasn’t in Miami when former G.M. Jeff Ireland signed Wallace, and Hickey probably thinks what most people think, which is that Ireland overpaid to acquire Wallace last year.

The Dolphins won’t trade Wallace not because they don’t want to, but because his contract makes it all but impossible. First, Miami would take an immediate cap charge of $8.8 million if Wallace is traded before June 1. Secondly, any team that trades for Wallace would be taking on his fully guaranteed salary of $15 million this season. That’s not going to happen.

So don’t be surprised if Hickey drafts a receiver this year who could replace Wallace as Miami’s No. 1 receiver next year.

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Tom Savage will not attend the draft

Tom Savage AP

Former Pitt quarterback Tom Savage has quickly gone from an unknown to a hot prospect, to the point where he received an invitation to attend the NFL draft. But Savage won’t be there.

Savage has declined his invitation and will not attend the draft, Josina Anderson of ESPN reports.

Just a few weeks ago, no one would have even expected Savage to get an invitation. But the buzz around the league suggests that NFL teams are growing so enamored with Savage’s size and arm strength that some teams may think he’s worth a first-round pick.

Savage started as a true freshman at Rutgers in 2009 and showed a lot of promise, but he suffered a hand injury and lost his starting job in 2010, transferred to Arizona and then transferred again when new coach Rich Rodriguez implemented an offense that didn’t play to his strengths. At Pittsburgh in 2013, he completed 61.2 percent of his passes, threw for 2,958 yards and had 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Moving around so much makes Savage one of the toughest prospects in the draft to evaluate, but some people think he’s going to hear Roger Goodell call his name early.

When Savage does hear his name called, it will be on TV.

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Raiders plan to cut Pryor on Monday if they can’t trade him

Terrelle Pryor

One way or another, Terrelle Pryor will no longer be an Oakland Raider by the close of business Monday.

That’s the word from Alex Marvez of FOX Sports, who reports that the Raiders will cut Pryor on Monday if they can’t trade him before then. That’s not a big surprise; it had already been clear that the Raiders have no plans for Pryor going forward, and that means it makes sense to send him packing before the start of the offseason training program.

It seems unlikely that anyone would trade for Pryor when the word is out that he’s about to be cut. Then again, he did show flashes of promise last season, and he’s only due a salary of $750,000 this year, so it’s possible that some team might think he’s worth a seventh-round pick.

Pryor is a phenomenal athlete who made some big plays last season, but those big plays were more with his feet than with his arm, and he still has a lot of work to do as a passer. If a team is willing to work with him as he develops, there’s still a chance that he’ll be a franchise quarterback. Just not in Oakland.

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Patriots continue showing interest in quarterback prospects

Seth Lobato AP

The Patriots don’t have an immediate need at quarterback, but they’re continuing to show interest in drafting one.

Our list of pre-draft visits shows that the Patriots have spent time with Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas. According to Boston.com, the list of quarterbacks the Patriots have spent time with at Pro Day workouts also includes Eastern Illinois’s Jimmy Garoppolo, Ohio State’s Kenny Guiton, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Ball State’s Keith Wenning.

And the latest name to the list of quarterbacks the Patriots have been linked to is Northern Colorado’s Seth Lobato, a raw, 6-foot-6 former basketball player.

The Patriots might be thinking now about what they’ll do at quarterback when Tom Brady retires. Or they could be trying to light a fire under Brady. Or they could be trying to pick the brains of as many quarterbacks as they can, as offensive schemes increasingly migrate from college to the NFL. Whatever the reasons, by the time of the draft in three weeks, it appears that the Patriots will have talked to just about every available quarterback.

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Report: Dolphins targeting Cyrus Kouandjio in the first round

Cyrus Kouandjio

Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is the target of the Dolphins in the first round of the draft, if one local report is to be believed.

The Palm Beach Post reports that Dolphins General Manager Dennis Hickey prefers Kouandjio to the other offensive tackles who are expected to be available with the Dolphins’ first-round pick, No. 19 overall. Notre Dame’s Zack Martin, Virginia’s Morgan Moses and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan are among the other offensive tackles who have been projected as potential Dolphins picks.

Dennis has got a love for Kouandjio and he should be sitting there for them,” a source told the paper.

As with all reports of this nature, it’s fair to ask whether it’s just a smokescreen. If the Dolphins really are high on Kouandjio, they should be keeping that a secret so some other team that loves Kouandjio doesn’t move ahead of them in the first round.

What is clear is that the Dolphins aren’t done rebuilding their dysfunctional offensive line. And of the offensive linemen they’re considering, Hickey reportedly thinks Martin makes a better guard than a tackle, Moses reportedly has a less-than-stellar relationship with Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor (who coached Moses at Virginia) and Lewan may not be available for the Dolphins at No. 19. By process of elimination, that would leave Miami with Koundjio.

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Saban claims Manning and Gase visits were separate

Nick Saban AP

When Alabama coach Nick Saban revealed that Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase had visited the Crimson Tide, it raised eyebrows as a potential violation of the NFL rules preventing players and coaches from meeting before the start of the offseason program. But now Saban says Manning and Gase didn’t meet together.

I am surprised to hear that anyone thought that what they were doing was in any way wrong. That’s what people get for assuming,” Saban told the Denver Post. “We did not talk Broncos football at all, other than Peyton asking questions about how he could get better as a player.”

Asked if Manning and Gase were in a meeting at the same time, Saban said, “Only to say hello.”

Gase got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant for Saban at LSU, and Saban characterized their meeting as personal, not professional.

“I only talked to Adam about his family. He talked to our assistant coaches,” Saban said.

The Denver Post story suggests that it’s not an issue because “Manning’s idea of vacation is talking football,” and so Manning won’t complain about it. But the rule doesn’t only exist to protect players from being forced by their coaches to do extra offseason work. It also exists to provide a level playing field for all 32 NFL teams. If Manning and Gase are permitted to travel together to study defenses during what’s supposed to be the players’ time off, they’re getting an unfair advantage over the teams that strictly obey the rules prohibiting any coaching from taking place at this point in the offseason.

Saban says that’s not how it happened. Saban is saying exactly what he needs to say to clear Manning and Gase of any wrongdoing, but the NFL has said it will look into the matter.

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