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NFL preseason puzzles: What's next for holdouts, rookie QBs?

Three weeks of training camp are over, and three weeks remain until Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season. At this halfway point of what often feels like an interminable preseason, here are six questions I'm looking to get answered:

1) When will we see our missing stars again?

A report suggesting that the Los Angeles Rams and defensive tackle Aaron Donald were likely to sign a deal this week was quickly shot down. The Oakland Raiders and Khalil Mack appear to be no closer to a contract than they were in February, although coach Jon Gruden has recently softened his public rhetoric about Mack, calling him his best player. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll rarely goes a day without extolling the virtues of Earl Thomas' replacement, Tedric Thompson. This trio of standoffs makes Le'Veon Bell's now-routine absence from camp look like it has low stakes.

While Bell is expected to sign his franchise tag in early September, the endings of the other three holdouts remain a mystery. Donald feels likely to wrap up first because of the optimism the Rams have exuded about Donald's situation for the last 17 months, although the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has made it clear that compliments won't get him in uniform again this season. It's hard to imagine the Rams not having their best player on the field when everything else about their return to Los Angeles is ahead of schedule. Something wouldn't sit right if the group funding the most expensive stadium project in U.S. history while making a cash offer to buy the remaining shares of Arsenal in the Premier League can't come up with the coin to sign a player who could someday be the first new Los Angeles Ram inducted into Canton.

Donald signing a market-setting contract will make it easier for Mack to nestle in somewhere close below. History says Mack won't miss much regular-season time, if any. Then again, it's been a minute since I can remember a negotiation with so little negotiation.

The longer Thomas' holdout lasts, the more likely a divorce appears. The Seahawks seem content to wait out Thomas and wait for an aggressive trade offer to come along. That might not materialize until closer to the Oct. 30 trading deadline, unless Cowboys owner Jerry Jones starts staring at how incredibly thin Dallas is at the safety position.

Thomas isn't the only big name that could still get dealt ...

2) Will Teddy Bridgewater get traded?

The New York Daily News' Manish Mehta wrote this week that a Bridgewater trade could be a "boon" for the Jets. After Teddy's performance Thursday night, that optimistic take looks more realistic.

The Jets did a nice job showcasing Bridgewater in the second half against Washington. He showed that his pocket mobility is back and his arm strength looked better than ever on an out route while running away from a pass rusher. Bridgewater's canny shoulder fakes and smart audibles were also on display. He looks like a starter again, but it may take a significant injury to another starting quarterback for the Jets to maximize value.

Every other team knows that Bridgewater doesn't make sense on the Jets, no matter how good he looks. Does general manager Mike Maccagnan really want to pay $6 million -- the 10th-highest salary on the team -- for a No. 3 quarterback? No other team was willing to give meaningful guarantees to Bridgewater back in March. (The Jets paid him a $1 million signing bonus.) The most logical suitors at the moment would be looking for a backup, not a starter. It's possible a team like the Broncos, Seahawks, Dolphins or Bengals -- all of whom could afford an upgrade at the No. 2 spot -- might show interest in Bridgewater, but how much will they give up for a backup?

The Jets' signing of Bridgewater was ultimately a worthwhile lottery ticket and insurance plan rolled into one, no matter how things play out. In a league starving for quarterbacks, giving the Jets a second- or third-round pick to get Bridgewater in the building sounds like another worthwhile investment. Now two years removed from his career-altering knee injury, the former first-round pick is slowly proving he still belongs in the league. It's hard not to root for him to find a better home, because the Jets feel like a pit stop.

3) Does Dez Bryant make sense on the Browns?

Based on Browns GM John Dorsey's words on "Hard Knocks," his interest in Dez Bryant is very real. Former Football Outsiders contributor (and Loyola Marymount associate economics professor) Andrew Healy, now the Browns' senior strategist of player personnel, sounded more skeptical about Bryant on the show, although the viewer understandably didn't hear the guts of his meeting.

Bryant tapes his first "Hard Knocks" scene with the Browns on Thursday, although it feels premature for Cleveland to sign him. Putting aside Bryant's struggles in 2017 for a minute, do the Browns really want to commit to Bryant when Josh Gordon's situation remains up in the air?

The Browns have expressed optimism that Gordon, who has stayed away from camp as part of his health and treatment plan, will be back on the roster before the regular season starts. There is no current timetable for his return, and all parties have stressed that his health comes first. Gordon has already gone through so much in his career. Everyone in Cleveland is hopeful for a happy ending, but no one knows what's coming next. How could they?

The football fit of Bryant and Gordon together on this team doesn't make sense. The Browns believe fourth-round pick Antonio Callaway is part of their present, not to mention the future. Third-year pro Rashard Higgins is looking like a contributor after a strong offseason. Add those two to Jarvis Landry and Gordon, then try to imagine what Bryant's role is supposed to be. Unless, of course, Gordon isn't there.

4) Does any rookie QB besides Sam Darnold have a shot to start Week 1?

The Jets telegraphed that they hoped Darnold would be their opening-week starter as far back as OTAs. He's done nothing to disappoint them, and Thursday night's solid, if unspectacular, test drive against the Redskins should be the first of many in this strange new era of unbridled Gang Green optimism.

I'm not ready to completely rule out Josh Allen or Josh Rosen as Week 1 starters quite yet, although both are long shots. Allen received increased first- and second-team reps in the buildup to Buffalo's second preseason game, an elevation that came after a mostly-promising preseason opener. Allen can't be discounted in a battle with Nathan Peterman and AJ McCarron, considering there's less clarity than a month ago about who the favorite is at the position. Peterman is seemingly ahead by a nose, which gives him a chance to be the first player who could win Comeback Player of the Year before the season starts.

Rosen will also get some first-team reps behind Sam Bradford in the second preseason game, a reminder that the No. 10 overall pick's development is more important to this Cardinals season than Bradford's preparation for Week 1. The Cardinals treat Bradford's practice schedule as if he's already injured because, well, he is. The 30-year-old is raging against the dying light of a once-promising career, defying a knee that told him to stop playing football during last season.

Fans will have to enjoy Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson in the preseason because it could be a while -- like, say, after a three-game losing streak -- before they are seen again. Hue Jackson won't even commit to Mayfield over Drew Stanton, which sounds like the coach doth protest too much.

5) Will Paxton Lynch be cut or traded?

Broncos head honcho John Elway spoke about Denver's quarterback situation this week as if Paxton Lynch was no longer in the room.

"We've got to have confidence that that guy that's going to be the backup can play and win football games," Elway said about Chad Kelly's elevation to the No. 2 spot, via The Associated Press. "And so that's why we're still in that process of trying to see if we've got that guy behind Case (Keenum).

"Even though Chad played very well on Saturday night -- we'll see how he does this week -- but if something were to happen to Case, can he come in and continue to win football games for us? That's the big part of the evaluation process, and that's still going on."

Left unsaid: The evaluation process is likely over for Lynch in Denver. The larger question is whether another team will believe Lynch worthy of a late-round draft pick in a trade or if Elway will swallow his pride and give up on the 2016 first-round quarterback he selected after Brock Osweiler wouldn't take the Broncos' money.

6) Will Eric Reid find a home?

Reid's ongoing unemployment is surprisingly under the radar. One year after Colin Kaepernick's search for a team dominated headlines, the exile of Kaepernick and his former teammate from football has gradually become accepted. Back in March, the slow-developingsafety market was used as a way to explain Reid's lack of work. Now Tre Boston and Kenny Vaccaro have jobs, but Reid, the 27th-ranked player on our Top 101 free agents list in March, remains unsigned.

Two years after Kaepernick first sat on the 49ers' bench during the national anthem to increase awareness of racial inequality, both Kaepernick and Reid are awaiting to hear word from an arbiter in their collusion case, according to Yahoo! Sports.

Reid closed out 2017 playing some of the best football of his career. He finished No. 21 (out of 89) in Pro Football Focus' safety rankings and was the 10th-best strong safety in football, according to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 scouts. Reid showed the versatility that teams prize, playing everything from the "money" linebacker position to deep safety when called upon. Durability has been a question, but Reid has averaged 940 solid snaps per season in his five-year career.

Reid's struggle to get an offer is even more inexplicable than Kaepernick's, an absence that will become more stark if it continues into the regular season.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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