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What Does Sam Darnold Need to Do to Hold off J.J. McCarthy?

With all the offseason hype surround J.J. McCarthy, the Vikings will give Sam Darnold the chance to prove he can make it work.

The Minnesota Vikings rebuilt their quarterback room this offseason after Kirk Cousins decided to sign with the Atlanta Falcons. This rebuilt room consisted of two new players, J.J. McCarthy and Sam Darnold. No matter the outcome of the 2024 season, McCarthy is the future, but an extended run of Darnold while the rookie gets time to learn and get better may not be the worst option.

The former No. 3 pick in the NFL draft has struggled to find a permanent starting job in the NFL, and by signing with the Vikings, this will be Darnold’s fourth new team in five years. While he’s struggled to maintain a consistent streak of good football, he’s shown flashes of why he was drafted so high, and why he keeps getting contracts in the league. A major reason for his inconsistencies at the NFL level is the talent he’s been surrounded with during his career.

What Does Sam Darnold Need to Do to Hold off J.J. McCarthy?

Before the Vikings

Starting in New York with the Jets, his rookie year saw him throwing to receivers Robbie Anderson (now Robbie Chosen) and Quincy Enunwa, with a rookie Chris Herndon at tight end. In 2019 the Jets made many changes. They fired Todd Bowles, hired Adam Gase, and signed Le’Veon Bell, Jamison Crowder and Demaryius Thomas. While those names weren’t the flashiest at this point, it was an improvement to what they had, and Darnold’s numbers improved because of it. The next year the Jets fell apart and went 2-14 and Darnold was traded for a second-round pick, which is important to know because even with the struggles in New York there was still a market for him, and that market was with the Carolina Panthers. The struggles continued, with Darnold and the offense as a whole showing inconsistency with Darnold at the helm. He only started 12 games that year due to the streaky performances, and would sign with the San Francisco 49ers to backup Brock Purdy the next year.

Sam Darnold- The Good

What Sam Darnold does well is create with his legs and his eyes, he’s aggressive (sometimes to a fault) but he’s always looking to push the ball down the field and make big plays. He has a lot of arm talent, that term is thrown around a lot, but what I mean by arm talent is the ability to make strong and accurate throws from off-balance platforms and from far away. If he can find the balance of reigning in the home-run throws and play in a more structured offense, with a much better supporting cast in Minnesota, he can succeed. He reunites with Josh McCown, a teammate of Darnold’s with the Jets, their familiarity can only help. Spending a year with Kyle Shanahan and sitting for 17 games doesn’t hurt either.

Sam Darnold- The Bad

While this article has painted him in a brighter light, it’s objectively true that he hasn’t been good enough throughout his career to be a starting quarterback. Circling back to his ability to make big plays, it’s also resulted in a lot of big plays going the other way. According to StatMuse, Darnold is 10th in turnovers since 2018, the year he entered the league. That doesn’t sound awful, but once you consider the fact that he’s played in 67 games and that the second lowest amount of games played among the top 10 in turnovers is Matt Ryan with 76, it makes it look a lot worse. 

This play is a perfect example of what Darnold can’t do. Darnold could throw the ball away and live another day, but on the first play of the game, he throws across the field off his back foot directly to a corner. (Not just any corner, Bashaud Breeland, Vikings legend.) These are the plays that give Darnold the reputation he has now. 

He tries too often to be a superhero and make every play a huge one when he’s more than capable of making the easier play. Even when the easier play is there, he still doesn’t take it every time. If he sees Justin Jefferson streaking down the field in one-on-one coverage with separation, he’s throwing it. If he sees Brandon Powell smothered in coverage with a sliver of a window, he’s throwing it.

Finding the line between forcing throws and being aggressively smart will be the key for Darnold, and if he does that, then the Vikings and rookie J.J. McCarthy will have all the time in the world. If he starts the year off as the turnover-prone quarterback we’ve all known to see from him, then everyone’s seat starts getting a little hotter in Minnesota.

Main Photo: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports


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