Five NFL clubs worth keeping eye on

There is no offseason in pro football anymore, just off weeks. This is as close as the sport ever gets to a hiatus. The draft is so last April, organized team activities and minicamps are over, franchise players have been signed (or not) and the regular season is weeks away. Still, here are five clubs that are worth keeping up with.

WHO ARE THIS YEAR’S 49ERS?

Last season, the Niners hired Jim Harbaugh, who had no NFL head coaching experience and began his tenure in a lockout. Optimists predicted four or five wins. Instead, Harbaugh’s panache was infectious, and his defense pounded all comers to reach the NFC Championship Game. So who will surprise this season? A solid candidate would be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under new head man Greg Schiano. Their schedule appears cushy outside the NFC South. The team added receiver Vincent Jackson and offensive guard Carl Nicks through free agency, and drafted hard-hitting safety Mark Barron. They should contend with all that talent and quarterback Josh Freeman.

INTERIM SAINTS

There is no precedent for the Saints’ bounty fallout. Head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is appealing, are out for the season. Interim coach Joe Vitt will miss the first six games and starting defensive end Will Smith will be suspended for the first four. How the Saints respond is one of the big questions entering the season. Come September, New Orleans could relish the bad-guy role and roll over teams the way the New England Patriots did after Spygate in 2007. Or opponents looking for payback may push them around in their weakened state.

CHICAGO HOPE

In the 2011 season opener, the Bears looked like a balanced, powerful club capable of keeping up with the likes of the Saints on offense, and outhitting a heavyweight like the 49ers in the playoffs. Quarterback Jay Cutler was trim and happy, Matt Forte played like the best all-purpose back in the league, and the defense popped people. Then Cutler and Forte went down with injuries, finishing their seasons. The team bolstered the receiver position, trading for 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall and drafting 6-foot-4 Alshon Jeffery in the second round. Forte’s contract has been taken care of, but still this is a team that will be able to rip it through the air every week. When is the last time Bears fans could say that? (Oh, never).

PEYTON’S PLACE

No. 18 took charge of the Broncos offseason training from the get-go. But no one knows for sure if the 36-year-old Peyton Manning, coming off multiple neck surgeries, can still dominate. The offense will no longer possess a pulverizing ground attack — the Tim Tebow threat is gone — but this is no longer a rushing team. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will build the attack around the intermediate pass game that Manning prefers, and master the art of rolling with the star’s argumentative nature during games. The defense will likely be better thanks to free agency and the draft — though the arrest of star defensive end Elvis Dumervil for assault with a deadly weapon muddles that. But even so, this will all be on Manning. He won’t back down from the challenge.

WILD BUFFALO

The New England Patriots reached their fifth Super Bowl in 11 years last February. The New York Jets have a pair of publicity tornadoes in Tebow and head coach Rex Ryan. The Miami Dolphins will have their training camp showcased on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this summer. In case you’ve forgotten, there is one more team in the AFC East, and they’ve been busy. The Bills made a splash in free agency, inking prize Mario Williams and ex-Patriot Mark Anderson. Add them to a defensive line that includes tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, and the unit may be the best in the AFC. That defense, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson should be enough to overtake New York and Miami. But can the Bills finally take down the Patriots?