Kevin O'Connell is Excited About Coaching Sam Darnold

No matter who the Vikings draft next week, there's a real chance Darnold opens the year as the starter.
Jan 7, 2024; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14)
Jan 7, 2024; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) / Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
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No matter which quarterback the Vikings end up drafting in the first round next week, there's a very real chance that Sam Darnold will be leading the offense out onto the field for the first game of the regular season. The former No. 3 overall pick, who turns 27 this summer, was signed to a one-year, $10 million deal to be Minnesota's bridge to the future, so he'll have the opportunity to compete with the incoming rookie for the starting job. If it's Drake Maye or J.J. McCarthy, it may even be likely that Darnold gets the nod for most or all of the 2024 campaign. If it's one of the older prospects (Jayden Daniels, Michael Penix Jr., Bo Nix) it might be more of a toss-up.

One thing is clear: Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell is legitimately very excited about coaching Darnold and seeing what he can do in this new environment, which is set up to maximize the potential of any quarterback.

"I cannot wait, when we are allowed to get out on the grass and start coaching these guys, Sam's going to be somebody that I'm just excited to work with," O'Connell told KFAN's Paul Allen. "I've always been a fan (of his)."

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

Six years into his NFL career, Darnold has justifiably earned the "bust" label. He struggled with the Jets, wasn't much better with the Panthers, and has career statistics that include a sub-80 passer rating, a sub-60 completion percentage, and nearly as many interceptions (56) as passing touchdowns (63).

Then again, there are a few reasons to believe in Darnold's ability to possibly have a Baker Mayfield or Geno Smith-like career resurrection in Minnesota. He played the best football of his career to close out the 2022 season in Carolina, going 4-2 with a 92.6 passer rating and a 7/3 TD/INT ratio. Then he spent last season learning under Kyle Shahanan with the 49ers, displaying more positives on a limited sample of 55 regular season dropbacks.

"I think that's one of the things that jumped out to me — it was limited tape, no doubt, from his year in San Francisco, but I thought he really got efficient with his lower half, he looked to me like he was in a true growth stage, even at this point in his career, and I saw a lot of good things," O'Connell said.

Of equal importance is that Darnold has joined a Vikings team that is built to help quarterbacks thrive. The offensive coaching staff includes O'Connell, Wes Phillips, and Josh McCown. The skill positions feature Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, T.J. Hockenson, and Aaron Jones. The offensive line is bookended by standout tackles Christian Darrisaw and Brian O'Neill. For all the talk of how the Vikings' offensive infrastructure will help the development and career trajectory of whichever rookie they draft, it might also do the same for Darnold if he earns the Week 1 starting role.

"I think quarterback environment is a huge thing for all of us that have ever attempted to play the game," O'Connell said.

Next Thursday night, the Vikings are going to draft a quarterback who will have the chance to become their QB of the future. But don't forget about Darnold and what his opportunity might look like in 2024.

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Will Ragatz