1. Tom Brady
If you're Brady, you are laughing today. And shaking your head. All you've ever done is win. With one exception, you went to Super Bowls mostly with schlubs at wide receiver. In total, five Super Bowl appearances and more playoff wins (18) than any other QB in history. Yet, now you are being told you've slipped.
If you are Brady, you're bouncing your kids on your knee, smiling at your model wife, looking in the mirror—applying gel carefully, while smiling at the handsome man in the reflection—and laughing hysterically at crap like this.
Is Tom Brady a top-five QB entering 2014?
This special 10-Point Stance looking at some of the key players and teams heading into the offseason begins with Brady. What I've seen with Brady over the past few years is not decline. He's gotten better as he's gotten older.
Last season was one of his finest displays. Brady had zippo and still went to the AFC title game.
As great and historic as Brady is, there are moments when it seems he's drastically underappreciated. It seems impossible that he could be underappreciated, but then there are stories saying he's no longer a top-five QB.
Brady is still top five, and he's laughing at anyone who says differently.
Prediction for next season: Brady will be Brady. The Patriots will make another deep playoff run and lose to the Broncos in the title game again.
2. The Cowboys
They're one of the most intriguing teams to watch. Then again, they always are. There is always some piece of drama.
Quarterback Tony Romo is 34 years old and coming off his second back surgery in just over a year. He's the key, obviously. He'll do what he always does. He will marvel and frustrate, sometimes on the same damn play.
The bigger issue is that defense. The Cowboys could have a worse defense than they did last year, and last season they had the lowest-ranked unit in football.
Missing Sean Lee will crush them, and I don't think Brian Urlacher will save the day. But if Urlacher does go to Dallas, there is precedent for a great player who retired to have a positive impact.
Reggie White retired in 1998 and came back with Carolina two years later, starting 16 games and being a credible force. Deion Sanders retired in 2000 and made his comeback in Baltimore four years later. He was also solid.
Prediction: The Cowboys will go 7-9.
3. Jermichael Finley
I can tell you there are a good half-dozen teams in quiet pursuit. Finley is a guy some teams see as an explosive force, but they want to examine that surgically repaired contusion on his spine.
The belief around the sport is a contending team will sign him for minimal money, and then he'll be a star.
Prediction: The Patriots sign Finley before training camp.
4. Jim Irsay
Punishment could come down as early as this week. The speculation I hear from team officials is that commissioner Roger Goodell will severely punish Irsay, who has unfortunate timing.
The union, the media and every player in the league are looking to see if Goodell hits the owners as hard as he's hit some of the players. Irsay will be a sacrificial lamb.
The most interesting aspect is what happens post-Irsay punishment. How long can Irsay maintain control of the team? Will other family members step in and take control?
Prediction: Irsay is suspended six games and fined $500,000.
5. The Seahawks
There is a saying coined by Pat Riley (and brought to my attention by ESPN's Louis Riddick) that is called "the innocent climb." Riley described it this way in his book The Winner Within:
The innocent climb is the surge that occurs within a team as they are accomplishing more because of the synergy that occurs within a team. Innocence means understanding that the team comes first and being carried along by that; being naive means being ignorant. Innocence doesn’t mean being naive. Teamwork and all of its benefits happen when everyone puts the team first. Innocence comes when the leader believes in something and puts him or herself out to accomplish that. Magic Johnson was a leader and great team player because he put the team first and because he looked at everyone on the team and adapted his style so that everyone’s strength’s were accentuated. He also had incredible fire and an innocent enthusiasm which was contagious.
I see a great deal of this in the Seahawks. The only team I've covered that was a more unified group were those Bill Walsh-Joe Montana-Jerry Rice Super Bowl teams. In many ways, in terms of talent, Seattle is more loaded than last year, since Percy Harvin is back. (He gets hurt in three, two, one…)
It's possible—possible—that we see a Patriots-type dominance and longevity from this group.
Prediction: Seattle gets back to Super Bowl and this time loses to Denver.
6. Josh Gordon
It is still looking like Gordon will miss the upcoming season because of a failed marijuana test.
He may be pushing some sort of chain-of-custody issue, but he's simply not believable any longer. The Browns don't trust Gordon. They shouldn't.
Prediction: Gone for the year. Suspension not reduced.
I continue to hear Gronkowski is going to take his sweet time rehabbing his torn MCL and ACL. Good for him. Why rush back? For who, for what? What we do know is that The Gronkster, while rehabbing, can dance his ass off.
Prediction: This will be the one year where Gronkowski does not get hurt and returns to his great form.
Team officials believe Kaepernick will have a new deal by the end of training camp, if not a lot sooner. That's not certain, by any means, but it seems as if the 49ers and Kaepernick's agents are moving along on things, notes Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
The fact that the team is beginning to talk contract again also means it doesn't think Kaepernick's legal situation is too serious. We'll see.
Prediction: The 49ers will make Kaepernick one of the 10 highest-paid quarterbacks in football.
9. Ray Rice
One of the greatest shifts in a player's public image we've ever seen. From spotless to horrendous due to punching his then-fiancee and dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator.
Rice will be one of the most interesting players to watch this offseason and into the year.
Prediction: Rice rushes for 1,200 yards and Ravens fans forgive him. Few others do.
10. Cam Newton
The thing I hear from scouts and personnel men more than anything this offseason is the belief that Newton will elevate his already-impressive game to the point where we put him in the same sentence as Luck or Rodgers.
Newton is already close (contrary to what some think). He's like Brady in that the offensive talent around him hasn't been very good (Steve Smith was a tough SOB but not close to what he once was). Look for Newton to make a huge leap.
Prediction: Newton is named Offensive Player of the Year.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.