New Vikings QB Sam Darnold getting a lot of help in learning the team's offense (2024)

Justin Jefferson returned to Minnesota this week, taking the practice field for the first time this offseason after signing his four-year, $140 million contract with the Vikings. The quarterback waiting for him was a former No. 3 overall pick set to inherit perhaps the most talented offense of his checkered NFL career.

Sam Darnold, on his fourth team in six seasons since the Jets took him third in 2018, is the early favorite to be the starting QB at the beginning of Jefferson's first season without Kirk Cousins. The Vikings continue to bring first-round pick J.J. McCarthy along at a deliberate pace, with Darnold and Nick Mullens giving them two veteran quarterbacks while McCarthy continues to learn. This week at the Vikings' mandatory minicamp, it was Darnold throwing the first passes to Jefferson.

"It's fun; he gets open more times than not," Darnold said Thursday. "Even in zones, he has a really good feel for settling in zones and all that stuff, so it's fun to be able to throw to him."

The quarterback signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Vikings in March after Cousins left for Atlanta, and could get a chance to reboot his career if he can succeed with the Vikings' offense early in the season. He reunited in Minnesota with Josh McCown, his mentor from the Jets who became the Vikings' quarterbacks coach this offseason, and he's installing an offense that shares some lineage with the one he learned in San Francisco last year. While tight end T.J. Hockenson could still be recovering from his January ACL surgery at the beginning of the season, the Vikings will start with Jefferson and Jordan Addison at receiver, Christian Darrisaw and Brian O'Neill at the tackle spots and Aaron Jones in the backfield.

Darnold, who turned 27 on Wednesday, has never played for a team that finished higher than 16th in offense. He should have plenty of established talent around him this year.

"We've got a really good skill group, and obviously a great offensive line to go along with it," Darnold said. "So we're just excited to continue to put good days together."

The investments in the offense also come with expectations, and with McCarthy as the Vikings' quarterback of the future, any success Darnold has this season might become a catalyst for him to move somewhere else. If he's unable to make the most of his chance with the Vikings, it's possible he won't have another opportunity as promising as the one he has in Minnesota.

The quarterback who's played for three teams since he was drafted as the Jets' centerpiece is trying to avoid focusing on how he's perceived.

"All the accolades, all that stuff, that's for other people to judge for me," he said. "It's just about being able to put the ball in play, just kind of being a point guard out there."

Darnold said there's no plan in place right now for him to get together with Jefferson and Addison before training camp in late July, though the teammates could connect for a throwing session sometime this summer. For now, he's using extra time at home to learn the Vikings' offense.

He's adopted the approach Mullens gave to Cousins, recording plays as voice memos on his phone that he can replay to himself, and writing position labels on poker chips he can then move around to display route concepts. In his apartment, Darnold drills his dropbacks and bounces a football off the floor, perhaps to the chagrin of his neighbors.

"They probably love that," Darnold said. "I've got to remind myself, too, after the first couple [bounces]. I'm like, 'Oh, yeah — there's people that live below me.'"

Tonyan standing out early

The Vikings signed tight end Robert Tonyan to a one-year veteran minimum deal this offseason, making Minnesota the final stop on the former Lions, Packers and Bears tight end's tour of the NFC North. Tonyan, who turned 30 in April, caught only 11 passes in Chicago last season, and is now four years removed from the 2020 season where he led all NFL tight ends with 11 touchdowns.

With Hockenson still rehabbing his knee injury, Tonyan got plenty of work behind Josh Oliver and Johnny Mundt during the team's minicamp. He put together a strong three days, showing a connection with McCarthy and making a series of impressive catches along the sideline and in the red zone.

"It's a tough situation, going from playing 60 snaps a game," Tonyan said. "But it's a blessing to be here in this situation … It's been so stressless. The coaches are great, and the team has been awesome. It's been a very stressless transition."

New Vikings QB Sam Darnold getting a lot of help in learning the team's offense (2024)

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