Vikings roster: When will J.J. McCarthy, Khyree Jackson start?


EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings‘ search for a new quarterback consumed much of their energy, and all of the public attention around them, for the first four months of the NFL offseason. Behind the scenes, of course, the Vikings were working on more than simply the transition from Kirk Cousins to a combination of Sam Darnold and rookie J.J. McCarthy.

They swapped out their starting running back, releasing Alexander Mattison and signing Aaron Jones. They remade their defensive front by signing free agent edge players Jonathan Greenard and Andrew Van Ginkel, drafting Dallas Turner at No. 17 overall and locking into a new pair of inside linebackers with free agent Blake Cashman and rising star Ivan Pace Jr. They even made plans to field a new kicker after three seasons with Greg Joseph.

So it was understandable to see coach Kevin O’Connell flash a genuine smile on the first day of rookie minicamp earlier this month, knowing it was time to move from the planning stage to evaluation mode.

“It’s really exciting,” he said, “to see the whole process kind of come to a head and see these guys wearing purple out here and starting to begin the process of their growth and their journey.”

As the Vikings move through a month’s worth of OTAs and minicamps until mid-June, let’s take a step back and consider five observations of their roster:

1. Get ready to hear a lot about Sam Darnold

The public anticipation for McCarthy is understandable. Top-10 picks usually get on the field quickly, and nothing about Darnold’s playing history suggests he should be handed a starting job.

However, behind the scenes, Vikings have uttered different versions of the same thought: They signed Darnold for a reason.

Expect O’Connell to use the same approach with Darnold as he did upon inheriting Cousins in 2022: building him up through positive reinforcement at every turn.

The Vikings don’t view Darnold simply as someone they can play if McCarthy isn’t ready for Week 1. It’s more accurate to understand him as a player the Vikings believe they can compete with as McCarthy moves through an organized developmental plan that prioritizes his long-term future.

Does that mean the Vikings have ruled out McCarthy as their Week 1 starter? Of course not. But they want his ascension to be organic — based on his own aptitude and readiness — rather than forced by a lack of alternatives.

That’s why O’Connell laughed when asked during rookie minicamp how he will evaluate McCarthy’s individual throws.

“I know some folks may be keeping track of completions and interceptions and things like that,” O’Connell said. “Too early for that conversation, I can tell you that much.”

2. There is a perceived need for a No. 3 WR, but …

From the outside, it makes perfect sense to wonder about the depth behind Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison following the free agent departure of K.J. Osborn. After all, the Vikings have used 11 personnel — one tight end, one running back, three receivers — on 70% of their snaps in the first two seasons of O’Connell’s tenure, eighth highest in the NFL.

Do they have a No. 3 receiver on the roster?

They stepped only modestly into the free agent market, signing journeyman Trent Sherfield to a deal that fully guaranteed him $1 million. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell recently suggested the Vikings sign free agent slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, but at the outset of OTAs, there are indications they want to gauge the progress of their internal depth.

At the top of that list is veteran Brandon Powell, who built significant credibility last season during the most extensive playing time of his career. A converted running back, Powell caught 29 passes for 324 yards, including a winning touchdown in Week 9 against the Atlanta Falcons. He re-signed on a one-year deal that guaranteed him $625,000.

Veteran N’Keal Harry remains on the roster, and the Vikings have several receivers they have been trying to develop behind the scenes for the past two years — including 2022 sixth-round pick Jalen Nailor and longtime practice squad member Trishton Jackson. O’Connell has also mentioned the progress of two players who were with the team last season in various capacities: Thayer Thomas (2023 practice squad) and Malik Knowles (2023 injured reserve).

3. The CB position is fluid, to say the least

The most concrete information we can provide is that the Vikings are hoping to fulfill their original plan for Byron Murphy Jr. when they signed him as a free agent last year.

Their idea was to use Murphy as a nickelback whenever an opponent had a pass-catcher lined up in the slot and push him to the outside against two-receiver sets. But because of injuries and performance issues elsewhere, Murphy lined up outside for 71% of his snaps over 14 games in 2023.

There are plenty of candidates to fill the two spots it would require to make that happen, but most of them come with questions, at least at the start of OTAs.

Free agent acquisition Shaquill Griffin, whom the Vikings fully guaranteed $3.99 million, would seem to have the edge for one spot. Akayleb Evans started 15 games last season but endured two in-game benchings. Mekhi Blackmon made three starts as a rookie but had his ups and downs over 435 snaps, and 2022 second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr. (256 snaps in two seasons) might be down to his final chance.

All of which gives rookie fourth-round pick Khyree Jackson a legitimate chance for significant playing time if he can put together a strong spring and summer. Jackson would be one of the NFL’s tallest cornerbacks at nearly 6-foot-4, but senior vice president of player personnel Ryan Grigson said: “The way he drops his weight and his hips, and just his footwork, it’s just not ordinary.” Grigson added: “We think he could be a hell of an outside corner.”

The Vikings have yet to re-sign Dalton Risner, who took over the position from Ezra Cleveland last season and started the Vikings’ final 11 games. Risner is still a free agent and thus could return, in theory, but it’s worth noting the contract the Vikings gave Brandel in March.

They could have simply given him a restricted free agent tender and then matched any offers he may have received, but instead they signed him to a three-year deal that will pay him $3.25 million this season. That’s not obvious starting money, and there is value in locking down reliable depth at multiple positions, as Brandel has provided over the past few seasons. But it’s enough to think the Vikings project him as having strong potential to be more than a backup over the next few years.

The Vikings signed veteran Dan Feeney, who has started 65 games in his career, to a deal that would pay him $1.8 million this season. And they drafted Wake Forest guard/center Michael Jurgens in the seventh round. But the Vikings believe Jurgens’ best position is center, and Feeney likely projects as a backup at this point in his career.

5. Potential for two new specialists

It’s not out of the question that the Vikings will turn over two of their three specialist positions this offseason. All-Pro long-snapper Andrew DePaola remains in good standing (his $1.21 million salary is fully guaranteed). However, the Vikings drafted kicker Will Reichard as the likely replacement for Joseph and signed free agent Seth Vernon to compete with incumbent punter Ryan Wright.

Vernon hasn’t punted in an NFL regular-season game, and it will be some time before we know whether he has the capacity to win the job. But it would be wrong to assume Wright is assured of his spot.

Wright’s percentage of punts that were downed inside the 20 dropped from 43.2% in 2022 to 27.1% last season, ranking him No. 30 in the NFL. He is well-liked in the building, and his throwing ability enhances the threat of fake punts. But even if Vernon is not a serious contender, there will be other options this summer after the conclusion of the UFL season and during the roster churn of training camp.

Source : ESPN