Where Is the Optimal Spot For McCarthy To Take Over As the Starter?

Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend, J.J. McCarthy took the field for the Minnesota Vikings for the first time. Well, kind of.

It wasn’t in front of 66,000 fans at U.S. Bank Stadium, and it wasn’t on a Sunday afternoon with a playoff spot on the line. During rookie minicamp, McCarthy threw to practice squad receivers and got to know his new teammates.

People analyzed every dropback like a game-winning drive in the Super Bowl. How does J.J. look? flooded Vikings beat reporters’ mention. Rookie minicamp shouldn’t get this much attention, but the NFL does its best to thrust it into the spotlight. It gets fans’ juices going, just like the schedule release.

While fans booked flights to Nashville or Jacksonville, Kevin O’Connell was probably mapping out his plan for McCarthy. Fortunately for KOC, the schedule may have given him a perfect timeline for McCarthy to supplant Sam Darnold as the team’s starting quarterback.

If fans had their way, this would happen sooner rather than later. The Vikings let Kirk Cousins walk and replaced him with Sam Darnold, best known for seeing ghosts on Monday Night Football and had failed stints with the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers.

Before the Vikings drafted McCarthy, fans were terrified that Darnold could become this year’s version of Alexander Mattison. Would he be a player who fans could see wasn’t going to work as a starter but had the coaching staff’s full endorsement? Now, many view him as a placeholder for the rookie to topple during training camp.

We’ve seen first-year quarterbacks come into camp and succeed before. C.J. Stroud‘s success last season only intensified fans’ desire to see McCarthy start immediately. However, history suggests that the Vikings would be wise to slow-play McCarthy.

The Athletic’s Austin Mock did a deep dive on rookie quarterbacks dating back to 2023, and the results do not play in McCarthy’s favor. Of the 42 quarterbacks during that timeframe, only three (Stroud, Mac Jones, and Kenny Pickett) won more than seven games in their rookie season. In that group, Stroud is the only quarterback who remains a starter.

Even more damning is the outlook of first-rounders in that timeframe, who have averaged 10.5 starts but only four wins per season.

Some of this is because of the situations teams thrust these quarterbacks into. For example, the Jets ordered Darnold to put out a dumpster fire, and the combination of poor coaching and a weak supporting cast turned it into an inferno that rages on. McCarthy won’t have this problem with O’Connell and Justin Jefferson. However, he needs to fix some areas of his game.

One of the common themes from minicamp is that McCarthy needs to develop touch on his throws. The Athletic’s Alec Lewis said he’s like a high-school pitcher with a blazing fastball but no curveball or changeup.

That could work out long-term (see Brett Favre), but O’Connell demands a more cerebral approach from his quarterbacks. ESPN’s Dan Graziano also reported that McCarthy must hit several benchmarks to become the Week 1 starter. If he doesn’t, they’re comfortable with sending Darnold out there.

That’s especially true now that we know Minnesota’s schedule. The Vikings begin the season with a gauntlet that includes five teams that made the playoffs last year and road trips to tough environments like MetLife Stadium in Week 1 and Lambeau Field in Week 4, plus a trans-Atlantic journey to London in Week 5.

The Vikings could begin this stretch at 1-4 and come out of the bye to face the reigning NFC North champion Detroit Lions. While that game is at home, Dan Campbell has a 4-2 record against Minnesota and has won in the past three meetings. Detroit’s record could be even better if not for Campbell’s decision to kick a field goal late in the 2022 meeting at U.S. Bank Stadium and Greg Joseph’s 54-yard field goal that beat the Lions in 2021.

The following week is a Thursday night game. Minnesota has a short week to prepare to face O’Connell’s mentor, Sean McVay, and the Los Angeles Rams. It might not be a great idea to trot out a rookie quarterback in front of a coach who basically created your offense, so Vikings fans could be left with another week of Darnold.

Minnesota would have a long week to prepare for the Indianapolis Colts. McCarthy could soak in the information for 10 days before potentially making his first start. But if the Vikings are already in a deep hole, it may make sense to keep riding with Darnold, especially with what comes next.

The Vikings hit the road in Week 10 and began a stretch of three straight away games starting in Jacksonville. With trips to Tennessee and Chicago on the schedule, it may make sense to use Darnold or even Nick Mullens as the placeholder if McCarthy hasn’t reached O’Connell’s benchmarks.

That could create a second window when the Vikings return home to face the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13. If McCarthy hasn’t started by now, either Darnold has found the form that had scouts drooling coming out of USC, or it’s a lost season to the point where the team is competing but also noting the potential of a top-10 draft pick.

(I’m also assuming that Jefferson has signed a contract extension by this point and is locked in no matter how the 2024 season turns out.)

If McCarthy starts against the Cardinals, he’ll make four of his first six starts at home, with games against the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, and Green Bay Packers. While two tough environments in Seattle and Detroit loom, both games are unlikely to have the frigid weather that handcuffs an offense, allowing McCarthy to get his initial reps in a controlled environment.

There’s also the possibility that the Vikings go full Patrick Mahomes or Daunte Culpepper, giving McCarthy a redshirt year and turning him loose in 2025. However, that’s not something fans want to hear at the moment.

Either way, the schedule allows fans to think about when their new quarterback hits the field. It will be interesting to see which window the Vikings use to throw him into a situation that is much different than the one he saw last weekend.

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