Answers for the five biggest NFL questions left in the offseason

“What do you do in the offseason?” is the question most guaranteed to get a sportswriter’s head wagging. There is no offseason. Just because games stop doesn’t mean news stops.

Even after the playoffs, Super Bowl, combine and draft are all put to bed, there is still a slew of questions to be answered in the “dead” time between now and the start of the 2018 NFL season.

Fortunately for you, the readers, we sportswriters know this and keep at it, even during the time of year when the stuff we’re reporting isn’t on TV on Sunday afternoons.

We’re less than four months away from the start of the season, a little more than two months away from the start of NFL training camps. In that time, there are still plenty of issues that need to resolve themselves.

So with that in mind, and knowing how thirsty you are for NFL information, we present for you the five biggest questions still to be answered this offseason. Please dig in and enjoy.

Which stars will get extensions?

The candidates: Odell Beckham Jr., Le’Veon Bell, Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, David Johnson, Zack Martin, Jadeveon Clowney

That’s a big one this time of year, right? Who’s getting paid? Beckham is making every right offseason move in the Giants’ eyes, showing up for voluntary workouts he skipped last year and would be within his rights to skip again. He has watched just about every receiver you can name from his 2014 draft class get new deals, and don’t think for a second that doesn’t matter. Beckham has said publicly that he was jealous of the attention guys like Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans got (and he didn’t) leading up to that year’s draft. You think he’s not jealous of their new contracts? The ball is in the Giants’ court now. If they’re willing to pay Beckham more than the $ 16 million a year the Chiefs are paying Watkins or the $ 34 million in guarantees the Browns gave Beckham’s best buddy, Jarvis Landry, then this thing could get done pretty easily. If not … well, it could drag on into and through training camp — and possibly into the season.

Aaron Donald told the Rams he would not report for OTAs. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

As for the rest of those guys? It seems clear Bell and Donald aren’t going to voluntary offseason workouts without new deals. And Bell, as is his right as a franchise player who hasn’t yet signed his tender, is likely to skip training camp for a second year in a row if he doesn’t get his new deal by the July 15 deadline. I don’t detect much optimism about a potential Bell deal, which means he likely plays out another year on the franchise tag and (if healthy) becomes the belle of the free-agent ball next March.

Donald should become the highest-paid defensive player in the game, and the Rams should be willing to make him that. After all they’ve done this offseason to put themselves in go-for-it mode, the Rams can’t risk taking the field in Week 1 without their best player for the second year in a row. I’d bet on this deal getting done sometime before or during camp, with Donald beating at least one of the benchmarks ($ 19 million per year, $ 42 million guaranteed, etc.) Von Miller set in his deal two years ago. Mack is watching this deal from Oakland and should be in line for a top-end pass-rusher deal as well.

The Cardinals and Johnson both seem to want to get something done. Don’t be shocked if his deal comes in north of $ 11 million a year and he, not Bell, sets the new top of the market for running backs. Martin has to be looking for more than $ 24 million in guarantees, which is his 2018 salary plus the projected 2019 franchise tag number for offensive linemen. Ditto Tennessee tackle Taylor Lewan.

Finally, don’t be surprised if 2014 top pick Clowney ends up with a new contract before camp starts. And watch to see whether the Patriots do something with the contracts of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, who have both seemed unhappy this offseason, and whether the Falcons do something with the contract of Julio Jones, who’s staying away from offseason work for the moment as well.

Are these free agents going to get a deal?

Big names still unsigned: Dez Bryant, Eric Reid, DeMarco Murray, Kenny Vaccaro, Johnathan Hankins

The answer is almost certainly yes to all of these with the possible exception of Reid, who believes his stance on protesting during the national anthem last season is keeping him unemployed and who has filed a collusion suit against the league that could further complicate his chances of finding a job. Reid and Vaccaro make sense for the safety-starved Cowboys, but there doesn’t seem to be much interest in either from the team and, as you’ll see in a moment, Dallas may have its sights set elsewhere.

Dez Bryant may need to temper his expectations on what he’ll command as a free agent. Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

Bryant could be a nice fit in Green Bay or San Francisco, among other places, but it seems he may need to lower his personal expectations for the type of role and contract he’s able to get at this point in his career and the offseason. He fits as a big red zone target and an offensive role player, not a No. 1 wide receiver anymore, and those jobs don’t pay what he’s used to making.

Murray is a veteran running back in a league that doesn’t value those highly, but often you’ll see teams get more interested in guys like that once they get to camp and either have injuries at the position or realize their young guys aren’t picking up the blitz the way they need them to. Murray could end up in a place like Indianapolis, where the running back depth chart is young and pass protection paramount. But again, an as-yet-unknown injury situation is likely his best bet for an opening.

Hankins is a 26-year-old defensive tackle who ranked as the third-best interior run defender in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus. He took a while (though not this long) to sign last year when he was a free agent, and he doesn’t seem eager to take the kind of one-year “prove it” deal available to free agents still hanging around the market this time of year. That could change as we get closer to camps, but Hankins doesn’t seem in a hurry. He has visited Washington and the Jets and would fill a need in Dallas as well.

Could Earl Thomas still get traded?

Of course he could. Not to harp on Dallas, but they had talks with the Seahawks before and during the draft and couldn’t come up with a compensation package both sides liked. Seattle could keep Thomas and let him play out the final year of his contract. They could extend that contract. Or, if they get a vibe that he doesn’t want to be there and/or doesn’t like the contract, they could still deal him for a 2019 pick or two. Watch to see how involved Thomas is in the offseason program and whether a situation arises that convinces the Seahawks they’re better off getting something for him now than losing him for nothing next offseason. If that happens, the Cowboys could benefit from having slow-played the thing.

Other potential trade candidates include Giants tackle Ereck Flowers and Broncos linebacker Shane Ray.

Which rookie quarterback will be the first to start?

First-round picks: Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson

Five went in the first round. All five of their teams would prefer to sit them for a year and get them ready. But we all know that almost never works.

Sam Darnold could have the swiftest path to a starting job among the rookie quarterbacks. Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports

The best bet to start Week 1 if everyone stays healthy (more on that in a second) may be Sam Darnold of the Jets. Yes, he may need some seasoning, and the Jets have veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater in front of him. But they know their season-ticket holders aren’t going to get fired up to watch McCown for another season while Darnold sits on the bench. And McCown is the kind of veteran who’ll help groom the kid and won’t stand in his way if/when he is ready. Darnold needs to show a lot this offseason in order to convince coaches he’s ready. But if he does, it’s not crazy to imagine him starting Week 1.

Josh Allen probably faces even fewer obstacles in Buffalo, since the incumbents there are far less experienced than the guys in front of Darnold in New York. Allen could certainly beat out AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman, but the pre-draft thought on Allen was that he was very raw, so we’ll rank him behind Darnold in terms of projecting his ability to be ready by Week 1.

Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen could be ready right out of the gate in Cleveland and Arizona. But those teams seem set on starting the season with Tyrod Taylor and Sam Bradford, respectively. Now, in the case of Arizona, Bradford is always an injury risk. And if he gets hurt, then Rosen has to beat out only Mike Glennon for the starting job. As for Cleveland, it could be the closest comparison to last year’s Houston situation, in which Deshaun Watson had a good offseason but the Texans still started Tom Savage in Week 1. Not saying that Mayfield is Watson or that Taylor is Savage, just that Mayfield could show a lot this offseason and the coaching staff still could potentially pick Taylor as the starter to open the season.

And in Baltimore, expect Joe Flacco to keep his job another year while Lamar Jackson learns the NFL game and the Ravens’ coaching staff designs an offense to suit Jackson’s strengths long term. Jackson could see the field as a rookie in some kind of creative offensive package, but he’s likely going to have to wait until at least 2019 before he’s the Ravens’ starting quarterback.

Will these injured stars be healthy when the season starts?

The candidates: Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, J.J. Watt

Ah, the injury question marks still to be answered before the start of the season. This time last year, the Colts were saying Luck would be fine, and he missed the whole season. This time this year, they’re saying he’ll be fine even though he hasn’t thrown a football yet. So, you know, we’ll see. No way to predict this until we see something — anything — different from Luck than we’ve seen for the past year and a half.

Watson is looking good for training camp, according to people close to that situation, and should be healed from his torn ACL in time for Week 1. His injury happened earlier in the season than Wentz’s did and was less severe. (Wentz also tore his LCL.) So barring a setback, expect Watson to start Week 1 for Houston.

I’d be less optimistic on Wentz for Week 1, because that would be about nine months since the injury and that’s about the most optimistic timetable for ACL recovery there is. The Eagles have a lot invested in Wentz as their future, and with Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles in place as the starter in the meantime, there’s zero reason to rush Wentz back. Expect the Eagles to wait until he’s fully cleared and has had a couple of weeks of practice, and then to wait one more week after that. No reason not to be overly cautious with this one.

Watt? Seems like he’ll be fine. The question is whether he can get back to being the type of dominant player he was before all of the physical issues started taking their toll, or whether he slots in as something closer to a role player on defense while Clowney takes over as the star. Limiting Watt’s reps might be a fact of his and Houston’s life moving forward.

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