Did the Vikings Miss on Sam Darnold if J.J. McCarthy Starts?

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Conventional wisdom says that the Minnesota Vikings drafted J.J. McCarthy to be their quarterback of the future, but that doesn’t mean he has to start right away. In fact, it should almost be expected he’ll back up Sam Darnold out of the gate, but is there a failure in the process if that doesn’t happen?

Did the Vikings Miss on Sam Darnold if J.J. McCarthy Starts?

This offseason, the Minnesota Vikings parted ways with Kirk Cousins after the Atlanta Falcons gave him an absolute boatload. Instead, they turned to veteran Sam Darnold and paid him $10 million on a one-year deal, of which $8.75 million is fully guaranteed. That’s a sizable amount but not crazy, even for backup money.

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When Darnold was signed, though, the Vikings didn’t intend for him to be the backup. He is a former first-round pick employed by two terrible organizations, and neither the New York Jets nor the Carolina Panthers set him up for success. Given that reality, it’s possible he could come to an offensive-rich situation with Minnesota and succeed. Darnold shouldn’t be accepted to be given an unlimited leash, though, and he’ll still need to earn it.

An ideal scenario for Kevin O’Connell would have Darnold playing at least half of the year and allowing rookie signal-caller J.J. McCarthy to observe the game at the highest level. Speed is going to be something that certainly hits differently, and the Vikings head coach has a very complex offensive setup. The long game would be to ensure that McCarthy is in a spot to start and never go back to the bench.

Minnesota Vikings 2024 NFL Draft. Watch as QB J.J. McCarthy addressed the media from the TCO Performance Center on Friday. The Vikings traded up one spot on the draftboard with the New York Jets for McCarthy.

There are only two ways McCarthy starts during Week 1, and only one represents an ideal outcome. Darnold could go into training camp and the preseason, absolutely flopping at every turn. It would seem tough to think that could play out in such a short time period, but that would be reflective of a gross misevaluation regarding his potential development arc left to be exposed.

The flip side would be that McCarthy enters his first training camp and has limited preseason action while looking otherworldly. This is a situation that the Seattle Seahawks saw play out when Russell Wilson was drafted, and Matt Flynn was being paid to start. Although the Seahawks didn’t spend a first-round pick on Wilson, the parallels are certainly there. McCarthy is coming from a collegiate offense that he wasn’t asked to do the heavy lifting, though, and while he wouldn’t necessarily be in that boat with Minnesota, the Vikings aren’t going to be a run-first offense.

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No matter what plays out leading into Week 1, it seems unlikely that McCarthy would be the first quarterback to take a snap that matters this season for O’Connell. Darnold might not end up working out, but it stands to reason he’ll be given every opportunity to prove he isn’t worth being trusted.

Ted Schwerzler is a blogger from the Twin Cities that is focused on all things Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings. He’s active on Twitter and writes weekly for Twins Daily. As a former college athlete and avid sports fan, covering our pro teams with a passion has always seemed like such a natural outlet.