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As a Bridge/Backup QB, Sam Darnold is a Sensible Pickup For the Vikings

Darnold isn't a Kirk Cousins replacement, he's a bridge to the future.
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Less than 12 hours after refusing to budge on their offer to Kirk Cousins and learning that he'd be signing with the Falcons, the Vikings agreed to sign Sam Darnold to a one-year, $10 million deal to help fill the void in their quarterback room.

Upon the late-night announcement of the move, the general reaction from NFL fans went something like this: "They're really replacing Cousins with Darnold? What a downgrade. Justin Jefferson's gotta be pissed."

Yes, Darnold represents a major step down from Cousins as a quarterback. By letting their four-time Pro Bowl starter walk in free agency, the Vikings obviously got worse for the 2024 season. But that's not the logical way to view this move from Minnesota.

Darnold is not a 1-for-1 Cousins replacement. For one, he's at least $35 million cheaper — it hasn't yet been reported if his $10 million salary is fully guaranteed or if that figure includes some incentives — and does not represent a financial commitment beyond this season. Even with Cousins' $28.5 million dead cap hit on their books this year, the Vikings' decision not to give him $100 million guaranteed like Atlanta did provides them with more room to build out their roster in 2024 and beyond. They've been busy over the last couple days, signing three new defensive starters and Aaron Jones in addition to a lower-cost quarterback.

Darnold was acquired to be a bridge to the future, or perhaps an experienced backup. After losing Cousins, the Vikings should now be all-in on drafting a rookie QB in April, even if they have to trade up to get their guy. Darnold gives them someone who can compete to be the Week 1 starter if whichever rookie they select isn't deemed ready to go right away. If they can land Drake Maye or J.J. McCarthy, it could be useful to let them develop behind the scenes while the team sees what Darnold has to offer.

Also, Darnold is not entirely devoid of upside. Originally the No. 3 overall pick out of USC in 2018, he turns 27 this summer. He struggled mightily with the Jets — as many quarterbacks do — and in his first year with the Panthers, but his last two years are slightly encouraging. During Carolina's 2022 season, Darnold took over for Baker Mayfield — who had gone 1-5 with a 74.4 passer rating — and P.J. Walker in Week 12. Over the final six games of the season, Darnold went 4-2 with a career-high 92.6 passer rating, scoring nine touchdowns with five turnovers. He then spent 2023 learning from Kyle Shanahan as Brock Purdy's backup in San Francisco.

Last year, Mayfield resurrected his career at age 28, making his first Pro Bowl and leading the Buccaneers to a playoff victory. He just earned a new three-year deal from Tampa Bay that includes $50 million guaranteed. The Vikings are envisioning a path for Darnold to be this year's Mayfield or Geno Smith: a quarterback in their late 20s or early 30s who has a surprising breakout season in a new environment. Darnold has a theoretically higher ceiling than Nick Mullens, who is two years older than him and threw eight interceptions in three starts last season.

The Vikings possess an ideal setup for any quarterback. Darnold will be coached by former NFL QBs Kevin O'Connell and Josh McCown (who was his teammate with Jets) in an offense featuring Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, T.J. Hockenson, Aaron Jones, and two excellent tackles. If he's ever going to take a leap forward, this is the place to do it.

As for Jefferson, there's no reason for Vikings fans to suddenly be concerned about the face of the franchise demanding a trade. That's not something GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is even considering. Jefferson had a great relationship with Cousins and wanted him back, but he also's an intense competitor who presumably recognizes that the Vikings were nowhere near a Super Bowl during the Cousins era. 

He'll want to see who else is coming in at quarterback, but it shouldn't be too difficult to pitch Jefferson on the idea of Darnold as a bridge to a rookie who allows the Vikings to beef up the rest of their roster. If they hit on the draft pick, they'll be closer to legitimate championship contention than they ever were with Cousins. As long as the Vikings give Jefferson the record-breaking contract extension he's earned at some point before the season begins, their superstar should be ready to rock regardless of who's throwing him the football.

Darnold isn't Cousins. But as a $10 million bridge or backup QB with a bit of lingering upside, he's a sensible addition for the Vikings.

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