Football never felt more like a year-round sport than in 2015. The NFL continues to dominate sports headlines even out of season thanks to a flurry of offseason roster moves, the 'Deflategate' controversy, a radical rule change (extra points moved back to 33-yard line) and the hope that springs each year from the college draft. While every team has reasons for optimism right now, some enter the preseason surrounded by more intrigue than other. FOX Sports Senior NFL writer Alex Marvez lists which 10 teams -- well, 11 (technically) -- he's most curious about as the start to the 2015 campaign approaches.
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The Eagles finished 10-6 last year but you would never know it based upon head coach Chip Kelly’s massive personnel overhaul. Kelly traded leading rusher Shady McCoy, dealt his starting QB to St. Louis (Nick Foles) for another (the oft-injured Sam Bradford), allowed top wideout Jeremy Maclin to leave for Kansas City, released some long-time Eagles players, and added big-money free agents in RB DeMarco Murray and CB Byron Maxwell. To top it off, Philadelphia inked QB Tim Tebow after he spent the past two seasons out of the league. How well all these changes work will make or break Kelly as an NFL head coach.
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San Francisco 49ers
New head coach Jim Tomsula inherits a starting roster that bears little resemblance to the 49ers squads that were among the NFL’s best between 2011 and 2013. San Francisco was gutted with free-agent defections and four player retirements. The buzz surrounding the team isn’t that of the playoffs but how far the 49ers will fall in the rugged NFC West. To prevent the gloomy drop-off being predicted, San Francisco will need Colin Kaepernick to prove he truly is a franchise QB by carrying the load more so than at any previous point in his five NFL seasons.
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The Bills set a franchise record for season ticket sales this offseason (57,000-plus), eclipsing a mark set in the early 1990s when Buffalo reached four straight Super Bowls. This reflects the kind of enthusiasm new head coach Rex Ryan has brought to a club that hasn’t reached the playoffs for 15 seasons. The Bills have all the pieces in place to end that league-long drought except one – a proven answer at QB with Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor and E.J. Manuel battling for the starting job.
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It’s about as close as 'Super Bowl-or-bust' as you can get for the Colts. After falling short in the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Colts brought in a bunch of 30-something veterans led by RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson in hopes of getting over the hump. Andrew Luck now has more firepower to work with than any other NFL offense, but the fourth-year QB still must prove he and the Colts can get over the hump against New England after losing the previous four matchups by a 189-73 margin.
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New England Patriots
Defending the Super Bowl title would already be tough even if Tom Brady weren’t suspended for the first four games as punishment for 'Deflategate'. As the star QB awaits the results of his recent appeal, the Patriots are forced to get Jimmy Garoppolo ready for what could very well be his first NFL start in the season-opener vs. Pittsburgh. New England also must find a way to compensate for the offseason departures of starting CBs Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency as well as the release of defensive mainstay and locker-room leader Vince Wilfork.
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After failing to win a Super Bowl despite reaching the second round of the playoffs for each of the past four years, the Broncos made a radical offseason change hoping to keep that window open a little longer for 39-year-old QB Peyton Manning by cutting ties with coach John Fox and hiring Gary Kubiak as his replacement. Denver hopes Manning’s late-season slide in 2014 was the result of injuries, not rapidly declining skills. Even if Manning regains his mojo, the Broncos need better support in the run game and along the O-line to give Manning the shot for a second Lombardi Trophy.
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The Cowboys are always intriguing team, but moreso after last season’s 12-4 record and strong playoff run. While far more conservative than in the past personnel-wise than when owner Jerry Jones was freewheeling, Dallas still took two huge gambles this offseason. The 'Boys let reigning rushing champ DeMarco Murray leave in free agency to Philadelphia, believing the offense can still flourish with a RB-by-committee approach. They also attacked their pass-rush by signing DE Greg Hardy, who was consequently suspended 10 games for a domestic violence-related incident. Dallas hopes Hardy will get his ban reduced on appeal.
No team has returned to the Super Bowl after losing in that game the previous season since the 1993 Buffalo Bills. That’s one of the daunting challenges head coach Pete Carroll is facing after the Seahawks squandered the chance to win a second straight title with the infamous 'Second-and-Dumb' call at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. The Seahawks and Russell Wilson also must deal with the specter of his rookie contract expiring at season’s end if a new deal isn’t hammered out.
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The good vibes are flowing out of the Twin Cities ever since running back Adrian Peterson reported to the offseason program earlier this month. The Vikings have the talent needed to make a playoff push, but whether Minnesota can get there will be largely predicated by how much quarterback Teddy Bridgewater improves in his second NFL season. Having Peterson back to carry the rushing load and serve as a decoy in play-action should help accelerate Bridgewater’s development.
Tampa Bay Bucs and Tennessee Titans (tie)
Once again, there is excitement surrounding the NFL’s worst two squads from 2014. That’s because the Buccaneers and Titans used the draft’s first two picks on QBs Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota respectively. Both project to open the season as starters, meaning Winston and Mariota will take their lumps as they adjust from college. While both teams are unlikely to make the playoffs again this year, the hope is that Winston and Mariota show enough promise to indicate Tampa Bay and Tennessee are back on track for respectability.