May 30, 2024

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The subject of a quarterback’s journey almost always comes up when Kevin O’Connell is asked to write his thesis on the most significant position in football. The more time he’s spent basing his professional reputation on it, the more fascinated he seems to be while discussing it.

The weekend after he presumably mentored a rookie quarterback through the Vikings’ first week of organized team activities, O’Connell turns 39 on May 25. Compared to Aaron Rodgers, the oldest starting quarterback in the NFL right now, he is 17 months younger. If O’Connell’s career had gone in a different direction after the Patriots selected him in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, he might already be among the league’s oldest players instead of its youngest head coach. His thoughts on the pivot are filled with awe at the mysterious process that is still so elusive and that may soon determine the fate of the Vikings, rather than with resentment.

During the NFL owners’ meetings on March 25, O’Connell stated, “I always use a loose, light term with my own [career], calling it a ‘quarterback journey,’ but it was one nonetheless,” as he sat at a table overlooking the expansive grass at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes in Orlando.

The topic turned to Sam Darnold, the 2018 third-round selection who signed a one-year contract to join the Vikings, his fourth team in seven years. Even at age 26, O’Connell believed Darnold could succeed in the appropriate setting. The Vikings might offer that environment, with Pro Bowlers handling the blocking and receiving and former quarterbacks atop the coaching staff.

“Quarterbacks can be at different phases, parts of their career that maybe don’t always align with performing for three and a half hours on Sunday,” he stated. “You can grow if you go through the process and surround yourself with some outstanding coaches, which I believe Sam was in San Francisco. As a young quarterback—or really, as any quarterback entering our situation would—I really believe in the potential we possess.”

Naturally, Darnold is unlikely to be the real litmus test for O’Connell’s theory. If the Vikings select the quarterback for whom O’Connell and General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have been literally planning since their arrival in Minnesota in 2022, it may arrive as soon as Thursday night. They have spent the last two years scouting the class of 2024 draft prospects; in the interim, they have only made provisional commitments to Kirk Cousins and have refrained from moving up for a quarterback they were considering in the 2023 selection, partly due to their awareness of the class’s potential. In addition to letting Cousins walk in free agency and selecting at least six quarterbacks through O’Connell’s pre-draft process, they also obtained the No. 23 pick from Houston in exchange for their 11th overall pick.

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That process might come to a close on Thursday, particularly if the Vikings move up from No. 11 to acquire the highest-drafted quarterback in team history. However, it might also be the beginning of something, with O’Connell at the head of a system that appears to be as well-designed for the development of quarterbacks as the Vikings could wish for.

In the history of the team, the Vikings have only selected a quarterback in the first round four times. When Dennis Green selected Daunte Culpepper 11th overall in the 1999 draft, it was the last time they matched an offensive coordinator with a first-round quarterback.

Selected 12th overall in 2011, Christian Ponder struggled under a coaching staff under Leslie Frazier that never seemed to be in sync with the front management. Before a 2016 knee injury derailed Teddy Bridgewater’s career trajectory, the 32nd overall choice in 2014 was developing into a productive game manager for a defensive-minded head coach (Mike Zimmer).

After replacing Zimmer, O’Connell welcomed Cousins, helping the quarterback win a division championship with him in 2022 and developing a strong bond with him. But it appeared like a matter of time until the Vikings trusted the head coach they’d brought in to protect the position with its future.

O’Connell mentored Tom Brady, worked with Bill Belichick, and speaks with enough sardonic humor while discussing his own brief career to give the impression that future quarterbacks aiming to steer clear of similar mistakes have followed his example. He brought in Josh McCown, a 17-year NFL veteran who has played for nine different teams, this winter to help O’Connell in his first NFL QB coach role in Cleveland. McCown’s institutional knowledge and attention to detail were invaluable in a rookie’s training, and he brought a wealth of experience to the position.

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