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Kirk Cousins’ free agency, plus 9 other stories to follow in the 2018 NFL offseason

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What’s next for Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, how this year’s QB draft class shakes out, and the return of injured superstars are a few things we’ll be watching closely.

SiriusXM At Super Bowl LII Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

The 2017 NFL season is finally, officially over. The Philadelphia Eagles wrapped up their Super Bowl win with epic parade. And because we have no patience, it’s now time to look forward to the 2018 season, with my early 2018 storylines to watch.

Return of the injured superstars

Sports leagues need their superstars to be healthy. It drives an audience to the product and showcases the best the sport has to offer. I love watching the best players play.

2017 was a devastating year for superstar injuries in the NFL — Odell Beckham Jr., J.J. Watt, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, David Johnson, Eric Berry, and so on. The law of averages would make the 2018 season less likely to be hit with a major rash of injuries to high-profile athletes.

Most of those players are expected to return this season. How quickly and how well will they bounce back? Andrew Luck hasn’t thrown a football since October, a move that resulted in a setback for his recovery from shoulder surgery. Will we see him on the field at all this year?

The Kirk Cousins bidding war

Even with a backup winning the Super Bowl, this league is still driven by franchise quarterbacks. If you don’t have one, you’re not winning.

With Washington’s acquisition of Alex Smith, Kirk Cousins is on the path to unrestricted free agency. I don’t think Washington would be foolish enough to franchise tag him and play that game. There will be a huge bidding war for Cousins, with teams like the Browns, Jets, and Vikings having $50-plus million in cap space to spend. There are other teams like the Broncos and Jaguars that could be one quarterback away — Jacksonville is for sure — from making a push to win the AFC title.

My favorite for Cousins is the Vikings. They need a quarterback, and Kyle Sloter is their only one under contract for 2018.

What happens with Nick Foles?

Nick Foles completed 72.6 percent of passes in the postseason. He continually improved each week, and the Eagles’ staff did a marvelous job of incorporating schemes that were friendly to Foles.

Before the Super Bowl, I thought no one would trade for Foles, or at least no one would make a serious pitch for him. However, after his Super Bowl MVP performance and his game against the Vikings in the NFC Championship, someone will try trading for Foles. His value? Maybe a second-round pick. Smith got traded for a starting cornerback and a third-round pick. Smith has done more in the regular season than Foles, but Foles has now shown he can lead a team to the Super Bowl.

What would worry me about trading for Foles is that his new team better have the system in place for him to succeed. He’ll also need some parts around him to help, like a good defense and a running game. I don’t see him carrying a franchise on his back. He can be a helpful addition to a team that needs more consistent quarterback play.

Still, the Eagles SHOULD NOT trade Foles unless some team like the Browns offers a first- and fourth-round pick. For starters, his contract is team friendly for a reliable backup, and we saw this season how important it is for a team to have that player. Second, Wentz might not be ready for action in Week 1, so the Eagles will need Foles. Plus, they could spend more time making sure Wentz is healthy if they know Foles can handle the job for the first month or so of the season.

Quarterbacks in the draft

The top six quarterbacks, in no order: Sam Darnold, USC; Josh Rosen, UCLA; Josh Allen, Wyoming; Baker Mayfield; Oklahoma; Lamar Jackson, Louisville; and Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State. I mentioned above the amount of teams that could use Cousins, and that doesn’t include teams like the Giants who could draft a quarterback early, or even the Colts if Luck’s shoulder continues to give him trouble. The Bills could also be in the market. The bottom line is lots of teams need that franchise quarterback.

None of these six guys is a home-run pick. They all have flaws, which I’ll get into at another time. Rosen is the most ready to play now, but he doesn’t have the most upside. I’m looking forward to seeing where the chips fall with these guys.

The next generation

There’s always talk and worry about the next crop of quarterbacks taking over when the older guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Eli Manning all retire. The NFL is strong with young quarterbacks. Wentz, Watson Jared Goff, Mitchell Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, and Jameis Winston should all improve in 2018.

So much of the young talent in the league is at quarterback.

Offensive innovation

We have seen teams start using college concepts like RPOs ... which NFL teams have run for years without them actually being called RPOs. Lol.

While the college game sometimes creeps into the NFL, running a traditional NFL offense wins out. I counted only the first half of the Super Bowl, but the Eagles ran six “college concepts” out of 36 plays. So it’s not taking over the game like college football fans hope it does. That being said, I enjoy when NFL teams find new concepts to run. Each season there is a new innovation, at least one that starts out hot until NFL defenses start to figure it out.

Ratings watch

The NFL saw almost a 10 percent decline in ratings this season — only 3 percent for the Super Bowl — plus a small dip in the ad revenue for the year. The NFL still accounts for most of the top-rated TV programs, and it’s not losing steam like its critics hope. Just look at the new Thursday Night Football deal with FOX.

Overall TV ratings have declined for years, but the NFL went against the trend and remained strong until the start of the 2016 season. While one narrative for the NFL ratings decline is masses being upset because of the player protests, that’s not a main reason why the ratings are down. Cord cutting, poor product, the first two months of the season, and oversaturation are the obvious culprits. They all combine for the ratings decline.

Will the ratings continue to fall, or will they rise in 2018?

If you’re waiting for the tipping point to see if the ratings decline has hurt the NFL, you will need to wait until 2021 when the TV deals and the CBA is up. That’s when we will be able to tell.

What’s the next team out of nowhere making a run to the playoffs?

The easy answer is the 49ers, who just signed Jimmy Garoppolo to an extension, making him the highest-paid player in league history. But the 49ers aren’t talented enough around Jimmy G at the moment to make that run.

If I had to pick one team, I’m leaning toward the Texans with Watson healthy. We all know they can play defense, and we saw what Watson did in his rookie year before he tore his ACL. They play in a division with a new coach in both Tennessee and Indianapolis, which might not have a healthy Luck, and with the Jaguars in quarterback flux.

In the NFC, it’s not a surprise team, but the Falcons are super talented and have both their coordinators back for this season. I like them as an early surprise favorite to win the NFC.

Which teams could fall from grace this year?

The Vikings have just Sloter under contract at quarterback, and I doubt they sign Case Keenum to a long-term deal. They seem hell-bent on playing Teddy Bridgewater, which makes sense given their draft investment in him, but his health is still a big question mark. Then there is Seattle: major changes in the coaching ranks, the defense seems about ready to break up, and if Russell Wilson continues to get beat up, he’s not going to stay healthy.

Early-season play has to improve. That starts in training camp.

September and early October look almost like preseason football. It’s so sloppy, and it’s not a surprise. Since the new CBA doesn’t allow for double days, teams have gotten soft during camp. There are teams like the Eagles, Jaguars, and Chiefs who still go hard in camp, but many others have opted for sports science to design practice schedules over traditional practice methods.

I’m not knocking sports science — it does have a valuable place in the sport, but camp needs to be tough, both physically and mentally. It would also improve the blocking and tackling in the first month of the season. It would be nice to not have to spend the first month defending the play of the offensive lines in the league because they started slow.

I can’t wait to see all the offseason wildness!