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Seahawks’ biggest question marks heading into 2018 season: Part 1

Seahawks safety Earl Thomas returned to practice Wednesday. (AP)
LISTEN: John Schneider on the Seahawks top offseason priority

The Seahawks face plenty of tough questions this offseason – how do you replace Richard Sherman, anyway? – and while not all of these questions have been compiled in the list below, we took a stab at a few of the most pressing concerns facing this team in 2018.

(We take a look at the running back situation, the offensive line, the biggest draft priority, and a prime candidate for the next contract extension in Part 2 of this series. You can read that here.)

1. What will the team do with Earl Thomas?

General manager John Schneider says this team is in a “reset,” not a rebuild. Because of that, you’d think they’d want to keep one of their best players and give themselves a better shot at a championship. Especially when that player, All Pro safety Earl Thomas, is still under contract.

However, Thomas has stated his desire for a contract extension. And why not? Despite Thomas’ age (28), the Seahawks have a track record of awarding extensions to top-performing players who are in the final year of their deals. They did so for Marshawn Lynch (at 28), Kam Chancellor (at 29) and Michael Bennett (at 31). The six-time Pro Bowler, who has been one of the best safeties in the league for eight years, has plenty of precedence to ask for a new deal.

Still, the Seahawks are strapped for cap room and draft picks. They’ll enter the draft without a second- or third-round pick, and a trade of Thomas is their best option to regain a bit of capital. But will they make the move?

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The Seahawks will want a lot for Thomas – a price tag that could be too high for a team that will need to award him a new deal in a year. A trade is always a possibility, but I’m leaning into ESPN Adam Schefter’s take on this one:

“He is expected to return,” Schefter told Danny, Dave and Moore last week. “That’s been my understanding all along, that he is expected to return. There’s been a lot of smoke, a lot of discussion, a lot of speculation. I’m sure it’ll continue to go on until the draft comes and goes. But my understanding is that you could look for Earl Thomas to be back right now.

2. What will the Seahawks do with their No. 18 overall pick?

The answer to this question will be tied to the previous dilemma. The Seahawks have the No. 18 pick, and then nothing until the fourth round. If they net a 2018 first-round pick (and change) by trading Earl Thomas, will they use their 18th-overall pick? If they keep Thomas, will trading out of the first round net them enough in later rounds? Is there a chance they keep Thomas and make a move at 18?

There a couple rumors floating around, but it’s unlikely this front office has made a final decision on any of these questions. Most draft experts predict Seattle will trade back, which makes sense given that this team has a history of doing so under Schneider and Carroll. This scenario becomes more likely if they retain Thomas.

A look at the Seahawks’ options for backup QB

Also making that scenario more likely are this team’s needs – they have a lot of them. They’ve lost their top tight end, one of their top wide receivers, and their top cornerback. They’ve made it clear the run game is an emphasis, but have a relatively young group of running backs and are coming off a year in which just one of those players had a rushing touchdown. They’ve traded away one of their best pass rushers, and could lose another. Picking at 18 would net them one of the better players in this year’s draft – but trading down would help replenish a few of those positions.

3. Will Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, or Malik McDowell be suiting up for this team in 2018?

When it comes to injuries, the biggest question marks undoubtedly surround defensive end Cliff Avril, safety Kam Chancellor, and defensive tackle Malik McDowell. Avril and Chancellor are recovering from season-ending neck injuries, while McDowell has yet to play a snap for the Seahawks ever since suffering a serious concussion in an ATV incident months after the 2017 NFL Draft.

Regarding Chancellor and Avril, Pete Carroll said there was “nothing new” during a press conference at the NFL Combine.

“Those guys are still in-process and we’re waiting for the word,” Carroll said. “They have their kind of stations along the way that they kind of check in with their docs and all that. We’re really holding out hope that things work out.”

At 31, Avril may be a cap casualty for a budget-conscious Seahawks team; Seattle would save just over $7 million by releasing him. (For his part, Avril told NFL Network he’d like to continue playing with the Seahawks if he’s cleared to play: “I believe [I’ll be able to play again]. Right now, it’s all about recovery for me. I had surgery, I’m in a process of recovering. It’s a long process, it’s a long journey. When I get to the end of that, then I’ll figure out what’s next.”)

Like Avril, Chancellor’s future remains uncertain. His 2018 salary became fully-guaranteed in early March, though. Because of that, 710 ESPN Seattle’s John Clayton expects the Seahawks to keep Chancellor on the roster into training camp, and if he does not pass the preseason physical, begin the season by placing him on the Physically Unable to Perform list.

The team has remained tight-lipped on McDowell, and Carroll said they receive information “rarely.” His status will, unsurprisingly, be a point of focus throughout training camp.

4. Who will be the next breakout star?

The Seahawks are coming off of a 9-7 season, but don’t sour on this team just yet.

Schendier hyped up the young talent on Seattle’s roster during an interview with Brock and Salk this week:

“I’m telling you man, there’s a lot of good young football players that people don’t know about,” Schneider said. “Tedric Thompson was one of our best special teams players this last year. He didn’t get to play much at strong safety. Kam [Chancellor] was one of our best special teams players the first year he played. He didn’t get to play strong safety because Lawyer [Milloy] was here. Trust the process, man.”

Second-year cornerback Shaquill Griffin had a promising rookie campaign, as did defensive tackle Naz Jones (before his high ankle sprain landed him on IR). Do they take the next step this year? Chris Carson looked to be the star back through four weeks until fracturing his leg. He’ll have another shot heading into camp this year, and (as Carroll noted) is now fully healthy.

Could it be a returning veteran? Safety Bradley McDougald signed a three year deal with Seattle after coming here to back up Thomas and Chancellor, and – now with a year of experience in Seattle’s defense – looks to play a much bigger role this season. Or perhaps a new player will leave his mark: Carroll and Schneider seemed especially excited about OLB Barkevious Mingo, who they hope can play a Bruce Irvin-type role and add more speed to the pass rush