Sports

We don’t know when the Vikings’ J.J. McCarthy will start, but here are 5 things we do know

EAGAN, Minn. — J.J. McCarthy stepped to the microphones with a bounce in his step.

“Feels like the last day of school,” the Minnesota Vikings‘ rookie quarterback said as the team wrapped up OTAs earlier this month.

McCarthy, however, was already planning to create and attend what he called “summer school.” After an offseason of crisscrossing the country for NFL draft prep, McCarthy said he planned to spend most of June and July in Minnesota, exploring his new home and spending time with his fiancée — who had previously (and gallantly) agreed to read him the Vikings’ play sheet on a nightly basis so he could repeat it aloud as he learned the Vikings’ scheme.

“It’s a hassle,” McCarthy said with a laugh, “but she understands.”

Via regular visits to the Vikings’ practice facility this summer, McCarthy said he hopes to build a routine “that I can rely on when it starts getting hectic and crazy” in training camp, which begins July 21 for rookies.

Veteran Sam Darnold will open camp as the Vikings’ top quarterback, coach Kevin O’Connell has said. Common sense suggests that Darnold is their likeliest Week 1 starter as well, and McCarthy’s eventual ascendance will depend on a series of unpredictable factors that include injuries and his own progression through a complex passing offense.

In the meantime, however, here are five assertions that are more definitive than guessing on McCarthy’s short-term future, based on observations during spring practice and other reporting:

Shortly after signing his contract extension, Justin Jefferson was asked about the talent on the Vikings’ offense. The first name he mentioned was Jones, the running back who signed a one-year deal as a free agent in March.

“We have a whole bunch of different weapons on our offense,” Jefferson said. “Just getting Aaron Jones into this offense, with his ability to run the ball and being able to be explosive, it just goes back to having Dalvin Cook back on this offense. Having that same type of mindset, having that same type of similarity. I feel like he’s going to do fantastic with us.”

Jefferson’s excitement matched that of other players who are thrilled and still a bit shocked that Jones is on their side. Since entering the NFL in 2017, Jones has more all-purpose yards against the Vikings (1,005 in 11 games) than any other player in the league. And Jefferson’s connection of Jones to Cook is notable as well: In three seasons as Jefferson’s teammate, Cook produced an average of 1,590 total yards and 11 touchdowns per year.

It seems unlikely that Jones, 29, will get enough touches in 2024 to match those raw numbers. And it remains to be seen how much O’Connell will re-balance the offense following the departure of quarterback Kirk Cousins. During O’Connell’s 34-game tenure, the Vikings ranked No. 29 in the NFL in percentage of designed runs (33.6%).

But when they do run the ball, it’s clear that players from all corners of the locker room trust that it will be in good hands.

Coaches really want to see Jalen Nailor

Sometimes the most notable personnel moves are the ones teams do not make. While there is nothing stopping the Vikings from acquiring a veteran No. 3 receiver between now and the start of the season, it’s worth exploring why they did not immediately replace K.J. Osborn when he signed with the New England Patriots in free agency.

To be sure, the Vikings knew they would be signing Jefferson to a contract that would require a major salary cap commitment, making lower-cost receivers a higher priority around him. Jordan Addison will be on his rookie contract for at least two more seasons, and the two free agent receivers the Vikings did sign — Brandon Powell and Trent Sherfield — are on one-year deals that will count a combined $3.8 million against the 2024 cap.

Powell, Sherfield or even one of the Vikings’ tight ends could serve as the third receiver when they are in 11 personnel. But it’s pretty clear the team is hoping to see a jump from Nailor before making any final determinations.

Nailor, a sixth-round pick in 2022, struggled with injuries throughout 2023 and into the 2024 offseason. He missed mandatory minicamp because of the flu. But in limited playing time during his first two NFL seasons, and more importantly in practice, he has proven a slippery target that defenders have trouble tracking. In two seasons, he has taken a total of 160 snaps and run routes on 72 of them. Vikings quarterbacks have targeted him on 20 of those routes, and he has caught 12 for 208 yards and a touchdown.

Asked this spring about the competition for the third receiver spot, O’Connell mentioned Nailor before all others.

“Jalen has always been a guy that when he’s healthy and on the field, he shows up on every single opportunity he’s gotten,” O’Connell said. “That’s our challenge to him.

“Sometimes things are out of your control and we understand that, but for him to take that next step, we’re going to need to see him out there a lot as part of that group.”

All eyes on the green dot

The free agent departure of veteran linebacker Jordan Hicks meant, among other things, another player would take over the defensive playcalling responsibilities, signified by the green dot on the helmet. The role is especially notable when the defensive coordinator is Brian Flores, who rotates personnel frequently based on weekly game plans. The player with the green dot on his helmet is one of the few front-seven players we can assume will be on the field throughout a game and season.

In 2023, Hicks played 92% of the snaps in games he appeared in. Ivan Pace Jr. took over in the four games Hicks missed because of a leg injury. In those games, Pace played 100% of the Vikings’ defensive snaps, averaging 60 snaps per game during that period and 34 snaps in the other 13.

Pace appeared to be the top contender for the green dot during spring practices. O’Connell said Pace “has had a very good spring, just with the type of communication [Flores] is putting on his plate,” but indicated the Vikings were also taking a look at newcomers Blake Cashman and Kamu Grugier-Hill.

Pace appreciated the trust the Vikings showed him as a rookie last season.

“It made me think more and actually focus and break down what the offense is doing, what our defense is doing,” he said. “… I know they brought in a couple linebackers that have more experience and stuff, but if they trust me enough to have the green dot, I’m ready for it.”

Top 2022 draft picks on the ropes

Jobs are neither won nor lost during spring practices, but anyone watching could see that three of the Vikings’ top four picks from the 2022 draft remain personnel afterthoughts.

As you might recall from that draft — the first of general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s tenure — the Vikings traded out of their original No. 12 spot and eventually ended up with the Nos. 32, 42, 59 and 66 selections. Those picks netted safety Lewis Cine, cornerback Andrew Booth, guard Ed Ingram and linebacker Brian Asamoah II, respectively.

During the practices open to reporters, Cine appeared to be no better than the sixth safety on the roster, if you include all-purpose defender Josh Metellus. Reserves Theo Jackson and Jay Ward, not to mention starters Harrison Smith and Camryn Bynum, were all working ahead of him. Booth got some runs with the second team, but he’ll have to contend with at least two newcomers — likely starter Shaquill Griffin and rookie Khyree Jackson — for a roster spot.

Asamoah was working behind Pace and Cashman. Ingram remained the first-team right guard, as he has been since the start of his career, but O’Connell indicated there will be a three-way competition for playing time at the two guard spots among Ingram, Blake Brandel and Dalton Risner.

Cine was the top pick, but he might have the toughest chance of earning a roster spot. For a variety of reasons, most notably a compound fracture of his left leg in Week 4 of his rookie season, Cine has played in only 10 NFL games and received a total of 10 defensive snaps.

His 2024 base salary of $1.7 million is fully guaranteed, so in theory he could return for emergency depth and special teams. But it would take a wild swing during training camp for Cine to get back into contention for playing time on defense.

The new kicker … can kick

The Vikings don’t stage many competitive periods during spring practices, so there were only a few opportunities to see kickers in game-like situations. The remainder of rookie Will Reichard‘s efforts came during positional drills, without a defense pressuring him and sometimes without even a snap. But he still managed to put on a display that confirms, if nothing else, he has the leg to kick in the NFL for a long time.

During the team’s final OTA, which was moved indoors because of rain, Reichard nearly hit a balcony that is perched on the wall behind — and above — the goal posts while moving through a progression of 40+ yard attempts. Later, in a full drill with a defense, he drilled a 60-yarder that landed in a net that sits 10 feet behind the goal post and 10 feet off the ground.

The NFL doesn’t award additional points for kicks that sail well above or beyond the goal posts, and Reichard’s success as a rookie will depend as much on his mental makeup as it does on his leg strength. But he passed all the tests you could reasonably pose a kicker during spring practices.

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