Benchmark Chatter Returns for Vikings’ Rookie

Aug 19, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell looks on during the third quarter against the Tennessee Titans at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings have one major attraction in their locker room. All eyes are on rookie J.J. McCarthy and whether he can compete with Sam Darnold for the starting spot under center in Week 1. There is no general rule that rookies must sit and learn behind veterans, as every situation is different. Some veterans are more established than the average one-year rental bridge starter, and some rookies are more refined than others.

Benchmark Chatter Returns for Vikings’ Rookie

Benchmark Chatter Returns for Vikings' Rookie
Jan 1, 2024; Pasadena, CA, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) throws a pass against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the first half in the 2024 Rose Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota’s QB room includes last year’s backup Nick Mullens, and 2023 fifth-rounder Jaren Hall. The duo will compete for the remaining spot on the 53-man roster behind top pick McCarthy and free-agent addition Darnold.

But who will start? The general opinion is that Darnold will receive the first snap in the season opener against the New York Giants, especially because the protagonists in the front office and the coaching staff have ad nauseam claimed that they want to be cautious with their pricey rookie.

ESPN analyst Dan Graziano still thinks there’s a world in which McCarthy could usurp Darnold in training camp, but benchmarks must be met.

[The Vikings] have a very detailed and specific developmental plan tailored to J.J. McCarthy. The way it works is if McCarthy hits certain benchmarks by certain dates, sure, he could be the Week 1 starter. But if not, they’re happy to go with Sam Darnold until J.J. McCarthy is ready. So watch J.J. McCarthy throughout camp, and the preseason, see how he’s advancing.

Dan Graziano
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy kisses the championship trophy to celebrate the Wolverines’ 34-13 win over Washington in the national championship game at NRG Stadium in Houston on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024.

The first time a checklist made an appearance was right after the draft when Kevin Seifert reported a similar story to determine McCarthy’s game-readiness: “The Vikings will follow an individualized development plan they created for each of the quarterbacks they considered drafting, one that requires McCarthy to hit specific benchmarks and gives coach Kevin O’Connell full authority to make the timing decision.”

Since nobody knows the exact timeline the Vikings want McCarthy to follow, it is hard to predict the next two months. That checklist might include fundamentals and mechanical details, the knowledge of the playbook, and performance on the practice field.

Coming out of college, McCarthy wasn’t quite viewed as an instant superstar, but he wasn’t regarded as a long-term project either, which just increases the mystery.

Jan 7, 2024; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) celebrates after a play during the second quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Still, it currently is Darnold’s job to lose. Source? Minnesota’s head coach Kevin O’Connell at Mandatory Minicamp: “We haven’t had to put out a depth chart or anything like that, but I would say Sam would be the guy I would look to based on the spring he’s had and, really, where he’s at in his career and his quarterback journey, and what he’s been able to do coming in and [hitting] the ground running and taking advantage of the competitive situation.”

Darnold has the advantage of experience on his side. The bad news for him is that his resume in the NFL isn’t flattering. Entering the draft as a 20-year-old with a powerful arm, Darnold was selected third overall by the New York Jets. After three seasons, he was traded to the Panthers, where he stayed for two campaigns, followed by a one-year intermezzo in San Francisco.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 31, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell and quarterback Jaren Hall (16) look on before the game against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

He still hasn’t consistently shown the talent of a third-overall pick. So why would this year be any different? The organization believes he can improve his game with a better supporting cast and superior coaching. Minnesota’s offense can provide both, featuring a solid offensive line, electric weapons on the outside, and an offensive-minded head coach who just showed last season that he can have a dynamic offense despite subpar QB play.

Darnold still must show some promise in training camp, although it seems unlikely that Minnesota would start McCarthy under any circumstances before he’s ready. The commitment to development over immediate success is good news for Vikings fans who have seen their organization rely on rookie passers too early. Ultimately, it will be O’Connell’s call, perhaps the most important call of his career.

The 21-year-old will be the focus of media and fans once training camp begins.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and prefers Classic rock over other genres. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt