Rookie Camp Is the Start of a Long Journey for J.J. McCarthy

Vikings QB
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) takes a moment to watch TCU celebrate after Michigan lost, 51-45 at the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 31 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. © Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Vikings first-round pick J.J. McCarthy and the other QBs drafted No. 1 began their NFL journeys with their new teams at last weekend’s rookie camps. The reactions from coaches and teammates in the six NFL cities with these rookie QBs were predictably upbeat as they were learning new schemes and competing against rookie defenders.

Rookie Camp Is the Start of a Long Journey for J.J. McCarthy

No. 1 overall pick Caleb Williams has already been named the Bears’ starter by Coach Matt Eberflus. “No conversation — he’s the starter,” Eberflus said. Of course, that was going to be the case, but how about pretending there will be a competition before handing the job to the already entitled Williams?

No. 2 overall pick Jayden Daniels was called “a stud” by rookie receiver Luke McCaffrey (Christian’s brother) at Commanders’ rookie camp. Broncos Coach Sean Payton gushed about Bo Nix (No. 12 overall), saying, “It’s like watching a good golfer.” Only Patriots Coach Jerod Mayo was more realistic as he said of No. 3 overall pick Drake Maye, “He’s got a lot of work to do.”

Minnesota Vikings quarterback J.J. McCarthy at the first day of rookie minicamp on May 10th, 2024, in Eagan, Minnesota. TCO Performance Center. McCarthy was drafted by the Vikings with the 10th overall pick on April 25th, 2024, in Detroit.

Vikings Coach Kevin O’Connell had positive things about McCarthy’s first days in a Vikings uniform. “We’re just trying to make incremental gains that will be solidified as part of how he plays quarterback for a long time,” O’Connell said. “I’ve been really impressed with him so far. He’s a process-driven guy and understands there’s a long road ahead of him.”

McCarthy came to rookie camp having worked with O’Connell and QB Coach Josh McCown on portions of the Vikings offense during a pre-draft private workout. “It didn’t feel like my first day,” McCarthy said. “I’ve been going over the offense for a long time now. So being able to go out and execute, it was nothing that was overwhelming or too much.”

His perspective may change next week when OTAs begin, and he begins competing in 7-on-7 and team drills against the Vikings veterans on the starting defense. It’s all part of the process, but a better test will start in training camp when the full pads come on and in practices against another NFL team, along with the three preseason games. Of course, the real test will be whenever McCarthy plays in a regular season game.

Rookie Camp
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

Vet Sam Darnold will take the early first reps this spring and summer, but McCarthy will get plenty of play time as the coaches continue to gauge his progress.

Will he perform well enough through these various checkpoints to earn the starting job on opening day in September? If he’s not the opening-day starter, that will be the dominant question from Vikings observers — coaches, players, staff, media, and fans — over the next four months and once the regular season begins.

We know it’s rare for a QB to have a rookie season like C.J. Stroud last year in Houston when the No. 2 overall pick passed for 4,108 yards, 23 TDs, only five interceptions, and had a 100.8 passer rating (ranking sixth in the league). He led the Texans from a 3-13-1 record in 2022 prior to his arrival to the AFC South title with a 10-7 record, followed by a 45-14 trouncing of Cleveland in the Wildcard Round (Stroud threw three TD passes and had no turnovers in the game) before losing in the divisional round at top seed Baltimore.

Rookies often have up-and-down first seasons (or simply down, as was the case with top overall pick Bryce Young last season in Carolina). Some first-round QBs sit and watch, as was the case with Patrick Mahomes in his 2017 rookie year with the Chiefs as the No. 10 overall pick when he backed up Alex Smith. That worked out superbly for Andy Reid and the Chiefs when Mahomes was league MVP in his second year (first season as the starter) and won the Super Bowl in Year 3.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

For the other Vikings rookies, such as the team’s other No. 1 pick — Edge/OLB Dallas Turner — the rookie camp gave them a similar opportunity to McCarthy as they began the initial stages of learning the Vikings’ offensive and defensive schemes.

“For Dallas, it’s just getting comfortable in that home position on the edge as an outside linebacker,” O’Connell said.

Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores envisions Turner as a highly athletic and extremely fast defender that he can utilize in multiple ways, as Nick Saban did with Turner at Alabama. “We’ll give him as much as he can handle but always try to put him in the best positions to do what he does best,“ Flores said. “Like any rookie, his role is going to be up to him.”

Minnesota Vikings Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores addressed the media from the TCO Performance Center. Flores was hired in February 2023 to take over for Ed Donatel after Minnesota finished 30th in points allowed.

For the Vikings to challenge the Lions and Packers (and perhaps the Bears) in the tough NFC North and return to the playoffs this season, they will need solid contributions this coming season from Turner and, most likely, McCarthy, along with some other draftees, such as fourth-round corner Khyree Jackson and the likely new kicker — sixth-rounder Will Reichard.

Around the NFL Observations:

This is 2024 schedule release week, and the league has announced a few top games ahead of Wednesday night’s full release, which is highly anticipated by teams and their fans as the true sign that the 2024 season is fast approaching.

Baltimore at Kansas City is a great choice for the Thursday night opener on September 5. It will be a rematch of last season’s AFC title game, which the Chiefs won 17-10 before going on to win the Super Bowl over the 49ers. This will begin the Chiefs’ quest for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports.

Philadelphia and Green Bay will meet on Friday, September 6, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the first international game in that country.

San Francisco will begin its NFC title defense on September 9 by hosting Aaron Rodgers and the New York Jets in an exciting Monday Night Football opener.

The Vikings will have eight home games in the 2024 regular season and are considered the home team for a game in London. I’ll give my reaction to the Vikings’ schedule next week. 

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