The 2014 NFL season may be over, but with the scouting combine less than two weeks away, and free agency and the draft coming up soon after, it's as true as it is every year -- pro football doesn't ever really go away. With that in mind, here's a look at some of the most compelling offseason stories.
Most intriguing teams this offseason
Dallas Cowboys -- The Calvin Johnson Rule may have upended them in the postseason, but the real challenge for the Cowboys will be to maintain the excellence of 2014 after so many years of empty flash leading to .500 seasons. On offense, things are dialed in on the offensive line and at the quarterback position, but the cap-creative Cowboys will most likely have to make a choice between receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray, two of the men who have powered Dallas' offense. On defense, the team will enjoy the return of several players who missed time in 2014 due to injury, and this should redouble the effort effects of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who did an amazing job last season. If the Cowboys can maintain their 2014 pace over time, perhaps a Super Bowl -- and real credibility for Jerry Jones as a personnel man -- could be in order.
San Francisco 49ers -- Jim Harbaugh off to Michigan. Greg Roman off to Buffalo. Vic Fangio off to Chicago. The 49ers' front office seemed to have little issue throwing the brain trust that brought the team back to success after a down decade out the door, and now everything is on CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke. On the surface, the promotion of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula is uninspiring at best and potentially disastrous at worst -- Tomsula is a career assistant with no known overarching philosophy, and his hire is seen by many as a way for York and Baalke to run things without Harbaugh's often hard-headed insistence that things be done his way. Problem is, Harbaugh's way was generally a successful way, and York's continued insistence that his franchise is interested in "winning with class" won't hide the fact that he and Baalke could be in well over their heads. If it doesn't work out, they'll be the ones to blame -- especially Baalke, whose iffy drafts over the last three seasons have left the team with an aging roster core and little depth.
Chicago Bears -- Few NFL teams have as much base talent as the Bears, so when Marc Trestman couldn't do better than a 5-11 record in 2014, he was replaced by John Fox. Fox knows how to run a team, but the real upgrade here is the addition of ex-49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who excelled with an undermanned defense last season and will coach rings around former Bears DC Mel Tucker. New general manager Ryan Pace seems like an agile and open-minded sort, and if the new staff can corral Jay Cutler and bring out the best in him, this team could challenge the entire NFC. It's good to remember that although Fox is a defensive coach at heart, his teams have gone to a Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme under center, and won a playoff game with Tim Tebow.
Biggest potential cap casualties
The ancillary issues are well-known here, and the Vikings have said -- at least publicly -- that they'd like to have Peterson back with them when he's fully reinstated. That said, a running back who will turn 30 in March, with a $15.4 million cap hit in 2015? That player is an automatic candidate for release, even with a clean off-field sheet. Several other teams would most certainly take a shot at Peterson if he's available, and a clean break might be best for all involved.
Evans was once a great player, but if his 2014 performance was any indication, those days are past -- he allowed six sacks and 47 total pressures last season, the most for any guard in the NFL, and that's in a passing offense where Drew Brees gets the ball out quickly on a high percentage of passes. The Saints are more than $23 million over the salary cap for the 2015 league year, and Evans -- who has an $11 million cap number for 2015 -- would give the team $7.5 million in savings as a post-June 1 cut.
Fitzgerald caught 63 passes for 784 yards and two touchdowns last season, but he finished 50th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics among qualifying receivers, with 60.3 percent of his targets coming from the slot, per Pro Football Focus. That's all well and good, but there's absolutely no way the Cardinals can keep Fitzgerald with his $23.6 million cap hit in 2015. He has an $8 million roster bonus due March 1, and his pre-June 1 cut savings would be over $9 million. There's optimism that Fitzgerald will take a pay cut to stay with the team, but it would have to be pretty severe.
San Francisco 49ers TE Vernon Davis
Davis had an abysmal 2014 season -- 26 catches in 14 games -- and with a great deal of money committed to Colin Kaepernick and the team's quartet of linebackers (Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks), his $6,967,920 cap hit for 2015 looks less and less like a bargain. His $4.9 million pre-June 1 savings would be a boon to a front office standing right around the salary cap limit before the draft and free agency.
Draft prospects who will see their stocks fluctuate most
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota and Florida State QB Jameis Winston
When it comes to the draft, teams and analysts who dictate much of the pre-draft narratives focus on the quarterbacks, and you can bet that Mariota and Winston, the slam-dunk one-two punch in the 2015 draft, will constantly move up and down. With Mariota, there's the question of how he'd do in an offense that didn't resemble Oregon's fast-paced approach; with Winston, there's the matter of his off-field issues.
Oklahoma WR Dorial Green-Beckham
Especially with the multiple suspensions handed to talented but mercurial receivers like Josh Gordon and Justin Blackmon in recent years, teams will be divided on Green-Beckham's freakish skill set versus the immaturity that caused him to be dismissed from the Missouri program. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound receiver has the potential to be one of the NFL's best, but buyer beware. Much will depend on how Green-Beckham does in team interviews at the scouting combine and beyond.
Washington DT Danny Shelton
Shelton blew up the Pac-12 as a senior with nine sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss -- not bad for a 6-foot-2 nose tackle who found himself double-teamed more often than not. Shelton will be seen by some teams as a top-15 pick, while other teams may stick him as a limited player, best in a 3-4 base defense and with pad level and effort concerns. The pad-level issue can be fixed, and the tape should alleviate any effort concerns, but teams often hedge on players with great potential and a few correctable debits.
What will Buccaneers do with the No. 1 pick?
Select their preferred quarterback. In Lovie Smith's first season as Tampa Bay's head coach, the Bucs went without an offensive coordinator, as Jeff Tedford's health issues prevented him from contributing as he would have liked, and the combination of Josh McCown and Mike Glennon at quarterback didn't do the interim staff any favors.
But with Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson as the team's primary receivers, any quarterback coming in with a reasonably dynamic game will benefit immensely from the personnel on hand. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will likely have a great deal of autonomy in the quarterback decision if Tampa Bay decides to go in that direction. A couple of defensive players (USC's Leonard Williams and Nebraska's Randy Gregory, for sure) could be argued to have first-overall talent, but when a team needs a quarterback, it tends to go for it.