Darnold off to a Good Start but How Long Can He Hold off McCarthy?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports | Jan 7, 2024; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports.

With the draft and the bulk of free agency in the rearview mirror, the No. 1 question for the 2024 Minnesota Vikings obviously is when will J.J. McCarthy take over as the starting quarterback?

Darnold off to a Good Start but How Long Can He Hold off McCarthy?

The Vikings are paying Sam Darnold $10 million to be the starter until Coach Kevin O’Connell deems McCarthy ready to step into the role. Will that be for the regular season opener on September 8 at the New York Giants? Will he have to wait until after the bye when the Vikings host the Lions in Week 7 on October 20? Or could it be when the Vikings begin a three-game homestand against the Cardinals on December 1?

Perhaps a la Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes in 2017, Darnold could earn the starting job and play well enough to hang on the entire season with McCarthy taking the reins in 2025. I doubt that will be the case, but anything can happen. My early guess is that Darnold starts the opener and McCarthy becomes the starter after the bye, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if J.J. is the Week 1 starter.

The Carolina Panthers arrive at Wofford College for their 2022 training camp. The team plans to host 12 training camp practices that are free and open to the public. This Saturday July 30, the team will hold the ‘Back Together’ event at Gibbs Stadium at the college. The Panthers’ Sam Darnold talks about working with his fellow players at training camp. © ALEX HICKS JR./SPARTANBURG HERALD-JOURNAL / USA TODAY NETWORK.

In the early days of OTAs, which began last week, Darnold and McCarthy are both reportedly doing well in learning the Vikings’ offensive scheme and executing it in the on-field practices.

Darnold has reunited with his former backup at the Jets—Vikings QB Coach Josh McCown. “It’s good to continue to hear so much wisdom he can share not only with me but with the other quarterbacks in the room,” Darnold said.

Darnold has split early first-team reps with Nick Mullens while McCarthy and second-year man Jaren Hall work with the backups and developmental players. McCarthy will surely soon supplant Mullens in the No. 2 role as the competition for Week 1 starter ramps up between Darnold and McCarthy. Training camp practices and preseason games will likely be the determining factor for O’Connell to choose his Week 1 starter.

I like Darnold’s attitude in his media comments regarding the competition with McCarthy. “It’s just how it goes, right?” he said. “Going into my seventh year now, even though I still am young (turns 27 next week), I do feel like a vet and just being able to help guys. I’m always happy to help.”

The bonding between the two quarterbacks is off to a good start, as Darnold and McCarthy attended a recent Timberwolves playoff game together.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips praised both players for their offseason program work. Phillips said of Darnold, “He’s been phenomenal—as good as we could ask for at this point. You see the arm talent with Sam. He was the third pick in the draft for a reason, and we’ve seen it since Day 1.”

Then Phillips talked up McCarthy by saying, “On the field, you see the talent. The intangible parts. You see the arm and the juice when he lets go of the football. He’s right where he needs to be right now.”  

The problem for Darnold over his career has been the turnovers. He has thrown 63 TD passes against 56 interceptions, leading to a lackluster 78.3 passer rating and a 21-35 career record as a starter at the Jets, Carolina, and last year at San Francisco. In his best season in 2022 with the Panthers, he did go 4-2 as the starter with a 92.6 passer rating, so perhaps he’s gotten better compared to his shaky early years with the Jets.

It will be a big challenge for Darnold to handle the pressure of competing with the player considered the future franchise QB in McCarthy, who is obviously the fans’ choice to succeed Kirk Cousins as soon as possible. But it’s O’Connell’s call on who gets under center this fall and it will be fascinating to see how this unfolds.

Other OTA Observations

I thought it was interesting to hear Phillips talking about free agent signee Aaron Jones, who had five straight 100-yard rushing games late last season, including in Green Bay’s two playoff games against the Cowboys and 49ers. “He’s a really big pickup for us,” Phillips said. “We have talented backs with Aaron and Ty Chandler coming on, especially late last season.”

Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Dallas Turner at the first day of rookie minicamp on May 10th, 2024, in Eagan, Minnesota. TCO Performance Center. Turner was drafted by the Vikings with the 17th overall pick on April 25th, 2024, in Detroit.

The Vikings’ second No. 1 pick—Edge/OLB Dallas Turner—is getting plenty of reps with starters and backups in OTA sessions. The Vikings coaches know well that Turner is a potential difference-maker who needs to be on the field in Week 1 as DC Brian Flores will surely work Turner, Jonathan Greenard, and Andrew Van Ginkel in the pass rush rotation as long as Turner develops as expected.

Around the NFL Observations

1. In my annual exercise of picking the team most likely to go from worst to first in their division, my choice for 2024 is an easy one. It’s the Cincinnati Bengals who finished last in the tough AFC North, but the Bengals had a 9-8 record. All four teams in that division had winning records, led by the Ravens at 13-4 (the AFC’s top seed).

Cleveland (11-6) and Pittsburgh (10-7) also made the playoffs, and the Bengals would’ve made it if star QB Joe Burrow had not missed seven games with his wrist injury.

The Bengals have a strong roster and have added talent via free agency and the draft while keeping No. 2 receiver Tee Higgins (who torched the Vikings last season) via the franchise tag. They also signed Baltimore’s top interceptor, Geno Stone (seven picks last season to rank second in the league), a move that strengthened the Bengals and weakened the Ravens.

The Bengals won the AFC North in 2021 (a Super Bowl season for them) and 2022 when Burrow was healthy. The Ravens are led by the reigning MVP, Lamar Jackson. They re-signed star DT Justin Madubuike and added Derrick Henry at running back, along with some talented prospects in the draft. But they suffered significant free agency losses, including Pro Bowl LB Patrick Queen, top pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, team interceptions leader Geno Stone (now in Cincinnati), and WR Odell Beckham Jr., along with several starting O-linemen.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears are a much improved last-place team, but they have Detroit, Green Bay, and the Vikings to jump over. I think Tennessee is another team that has a chance to go worst-to-first, but they’ve got a strong Houston team to deal with, along with good Jacksonville and Indianapolis teams in the AFC South (all three of those teams had winning records last season). So, the Bengals are my pick as the best worst-to-first candidate.

2. The NFL Players Association is reportedly going to seek changes in the offseason program by trying to eliminate on-field work in OTAs and minicamps in May and early June and replace it with an earlier ramp-up period to training camp with players reporting in mid-June to early July. The goal is to delay the physical on-field work so players have more recovery time from the previous season.

I don’t see teams agreeing to this change. Coaches want to see new players from free agency and the draft (such as a rookie quarterback in McCarthy) in action, getting accustomed to working with their new teammates in 7-on-7 and team drills before they get to training camp to accelerate the learning process of offensive and defensive schemes. It’s obviously different on the field compared to virtual meetings that are reportedly part of this proposal by the NFLPA.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl