How Soon Will J.J. McCarthy Start at QB for the Vikings?

McCarthy has to beat out Sam Darnold if he's going to be Minnesota's starter this year.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy warms up before the Rutgers game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy warms up before the Rutgers game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor / Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services,
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Whether or not J.J. McCarthy is the Vikings' starting quarterback to open his rookie season is up to him, in a sense. The franchise isn't going to rush him, knowing they can err on the side of caution by starting the year with new $10 million bridge option Sam Darnold as QB1. But at the same time, the 21-year-old McCarthy will have the opportunity — over the course of spring practices and training camp and preseason action — to prove that he's ready to take the field with the starters in Week 1. The decision that head coach Kevin O'Connell will make in September will be determined by how McCarthy and Darnold look this offseason.

O'Connell and Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have been preparing for this since they first sat in an office together in 2022. Back then, they talked about O'Connell's philosophy for evaluating and drafting a quarterback, as well as the plan for developing them once they're in the building.

"We talked about these things," Adofo-Mensah said. "Not just what do we want to do from a culture standpoint, but how do you evaluate quarterbacks? How do you grow quarterbacks? How do you develop them? And those things (O’Connell) talked about are the reason why I have so much faith in him to take a mold of clay like (McCarthy) — I think his talent, his traits, are as high-end as anybody — and mold him into that player we want him to be."

The Vikings are very cognizant of the impact various factors can have on whether or not young quarterbacks pan out in the NFL. They've already built an ideal environment for McCarthy from a coaching staff and roster standpoint. The next concern is making sure they don't put him out onto the field before he's ready to be out there.

"A lot of times when we go back over history and we say these quarterbacks have missed, there's a lot of hands that are dirty in that regard," Adofo-Mensah said. "We're going to make sure that our hands are clean and give him the best opportunity to be the best player he can be in this offense."

The Vikings are extremely high on McCarthy as a player, leader, and person. They believe he has the physical traits and the mental makeup to become their franchise quarterback. They're also fully aware that he's 21 years old, was a two-year starter at Michigan, and attempted just over 700 passes in his college career while operating a run-heavy offense. There are aspects of his game that are pro-ready, and there are things that need to be developed.

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"It's going to be our jobs as coaches, myself, Wes (Phillips), Josh (McCown), Grant (Udinski), to put him in the absolute greatest learning environment we possibly can," O'Connell said. "Identify some things that we really feel are areas that we can help him immediately grow and start making some habits, fundamentally and with his skill set, to hit the ground running as fast as possible."

According to ESPN's Kevin Seifert, McCarthy will follow an specific development plan that the Vikings created for him before they even drafted him.

"The Vikings will follow an individualized development plan they created for each of the quarterbacks they considered drafting, one that requires McCarthy to hit specific benchmarks and gives coach Kevin O'Connell full authority to make the timing decision," Seifert wrote. "The approach is designed to avoid the worst-case scenario — ruining McCarthy's career by exposing him before he is ready — and is a big reason the Vikings spent $10 million in March to sign veteran Sam Darnold as a bridge starter."

A big focus of this offseason is going be simply getting McCarthy as many reps as possible in every type of situation. That will allow the Vikings to track his progress and determine if he's ready.

"Learning an offense is not going to be a problem to him, that's for sure," Adofo-Mensah said. "Really just getting the reps under your belt. How close can you get to your 3,000 hours? He's one of the youngest players in the draft. So getting him close. But I think we have the environment to foster him. You know, Josh McCown, K.O., Wes, all these guys, they’ve got a plan for him, down to the day, when he's gonna be working on specific things. We're not going to rush his development. We're just going to do what's best for the Vikings in the short and long term, and we're excited to have him."

What that means is that the date of McCarthy's debut as an NFL starting quarterback is still fully TBD. Speculatively, it feels like the odds of him starting Week 1 are less than 50 percent, and it might be more like 70/30 in Darnold's favor. All of the environmental factors that should help McCarthy succeed will also benefit Darnold, who turns 27 this summer and has 56 career starts under his belt. The Vikings went out and signed the former No. 3 overall pick because they believe he still has some untapped potential.

McCarthy's goal will be to earn the job in Week 1, but it's quite possible that his time won't come until later in the season — or perhaps even in 2025. For now, he's just going to focus on attacking each day and making steady progress.

"My mindset is just taking one day at a time, really focus on just getting to know everyone's names, getting to know the playbook inside and out, and focus on being the best version of myself every single day," McCarthy said. "I've been doing that leading up to this point and it got me here. I'm just going to continue to strive to do that every single day."

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Will Ragatz