Vikings

Sam Darnold Might Become the Victim Of Cruel Irony In Minnesota

Photo Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Jets took Sam Darnold third-overall in 2018 and immediately gave him first-team reps in organized team activities. According to NJ.com, Darnold took 68 reps (17 with the first team) in the three OTAs open to reporters. Josh McCown took 49 reps, all with the first team, and Teddy Bridgewater took 39 with the second team.

“I’m making strides, but at the same time, I’m not exactly where I want to be,” Darnold said. “I know it’s going to take time, and it’s a process. I’m aware of that. It’s exciting to be able to understand the playbook the way I am and the strides that I am making. I’m really excited about where I’m going right now.”

Ironically, Darnold started his career straddling between McCown and Bridgewater, who represent the Vikings’ future and past. McCown spent 16 years in the league and is Minnesota’s quarterbacks coach. The Vikings drafted Bridgewater to be their franchise quarterback 32nd-overall in 2014. However, he dislocated his knee in a non-contact injury in late August 2016, and they moved on from him a year later.

Darnold is again caught between Minnesota’s past and future six seasons later. Unless J.J. McCarthy shows out in camp, Darnold will take over for Kirk Cousins in Kevin O’Connell’s offense. Unlike the Jets and Carolina Panthers, the Vikings have placed Darnold in a position to succeed. Minnesota has its best offensive line in years. Darnold will have Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison out wide and Aaron Jones standing behind him. T.J. Hockenson may return from in time to play with him.

Still, the Vikings will want to play McCarthy as soon as he is ready. Therein lies Darnold’s predicament. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah won’t call him a “bridge quarterback.” But Darnold, 27, is a veteran on a one-year contract playing on a team with the 10th-overall selection sitting behind him.

The Vikings don’t want to overexpose McCarthy by playing him before he’s ready. Therefore, Nick Mullens will likely start the year as Minnesota’s backup while McCarthy learns O’Connell’s system because Mullens would be better able to run the offense. Darnold will have done his job if he picks up wins during the more challenging early part of the season and then hands things over to McCarthy when he’s game-ready.

“It’s just how it goes, right?” Darnold said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of businesses where you can be in your business for 30-40 years, and the NFL I think the average is like 3-4 years. It’s a little bit different. Going into my seventh year now, even though I still am young, I do feel like a vet, and just being able to help guys — not only J.J. but help any young guys in the locker room that need anything, I’m always happy to help.”

Darnold’s willingness to assist his teammates, including McCarthy, should serve him well long-term. Another team is more likely to take the chance on someone who is good in the locker room.

However, Darnold would have to play like a franchise quarterback immediately to make the Vikings reverse course on McCarthy. They traded up to pick 10 to take him, and he’s on an affordable rookie contract. Even if Darnold plays well early in the season, the Vikings will likely turn to McCarthy either at the bye week or before a lighter stretch starting in Week 9.

Let’s say that the Vikings keep McCarthy on the sidelines until Week 9 and remain in the playoff hunt until then. That means Darnold will have played well against the San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Detroit Lions, and Los Angeles Rams.

He will probably have won a Week 1 road game against the New York Giants and beaten the Jets in London. Darnold will have faced Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, two O’Connell influences, and the Packers and Lions – Minnesota’s biggest division rivals. The Texans are an up-and-coming team that gambled on a quarterback (C.J. Stroud) and an edge rusher (Will Anderson) like the Vikings did with McCarthy and Dallas Turner in this year’s draft.

After all that, the Vikings will likely turn it over to McCarthy, who would get to face the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans in his first three starts. It would be the right thing to do for McCarthy and the franchise. But if Darnold succeeds this year, it will be because he’s in the best situation he’s ever been in. Who knows if the next team he signs with will have as much offensive talent as Minnesota has this season?

In June 2018, Darnold likely couldn’t have envisioned how his career unfolded. He made 13 starts as a rookie, going 4-9-0 with a 45.9 QBR. However, he may never live down his “seeing ghosts” comment from Week 6 of his second season. NBC mic’d Darnold up for Monday Night Football, and they caught him saying, “I’m seeing ghosts,” in a 33-0 loss to the New England Patriots.

The Jets moved on from Darnold after he went 2-10-0 in his third season. He latched on with the Panthers for two years, going 8-9-0 with a 1:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 77.3 quarterback rating. Last year, he played for Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, going 16/26 for 189 yards in a Week 17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Now, he’s the bridge between Cousins and McCarthy.

Most NFL general managers give up on quarterbacks who are high picks and bust with their first team. However, Baker Mayfield split the 2022 season between the Panthers and Rams after four years as the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback. He had a 94.6 quarterback rating with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, though, and signed a three-year, $100 million extension in the offseason. The Jets took Geno Smith in the second round of the 2013 draft, and he’s playing on a three-year, $75 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks after four tumultuous years in New York and a season with the Giants and Los Angeles Chargers.

Darnold may use his season in Minnesota to revive his career. The irony is that he may be in the best situation since of that career, but he’s unlikely to remain in it beyond this season.

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Photo Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

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