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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Judd Zulgad

Zulgad: Vikings can’t play it safe if they are going to draft their ‘building-changing quarterback’

The 2024 season will mark the Minnesota Vikings’ 64th as a member of the National Football League. In that time, they have had 18 selections in the top 10 of the draft, yet have never taken a quarterback. The Vikings, in fact, have drafted a QB in the first round only four times with the highest being Daunte Culpepper at No. 11 in 1999.

That remarkable streak appears to be in jeopardy of finally coming to an end.

The Vikings don’t have a top-10 pick in next month’s draft, but they do have two in the first round (Nos. 11 and 23) and those could be packaged to move up in order to grab Kirk Cousins’ replacement.

Kevin O’Connell did his best not to tip his hand on the Vikings’ plans this week at the NFL owners meetings — a month from the draft, subterfuge is all the rage — but this is the first time in his tenure as a head coach that he will have the chance to play the key role in selecting a quarterback.

It’s a tremendous opportunity that will be accompanied by tremendous pressure. Miss on the pick and there’s a good chance O’Connell and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah won’t get a second chance.

This is where O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah have to decide whether they want to get into the top five of the draft to take a quarterback, or hang on to their two first-round picks and either hope Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy falls to No. 11 (not likely) or reach by taking Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. at No. 23.

Trying to guess what teams will do in the draft, especially a month out, can be tricky, but it seems likely the Vikings will do everything in their power to get into the top handful of picks. The most likely teams to be open for business will be the Patriots at No. 3, the Cardinals at No. 4 and the Chargers at No. 5. There has been speculation as well that the Washington Commanders could be persuaded to trade the No. 2 pick.

“If we’re going to do something like that, that is a major, major organizational decision,” O’Connell told reporters. “I feel very strongly that we’re going to be all on the same page about that.”

That sounds ideal, but is it realistic?

O’Connell was hired from the Los Angeles Rams after the 2021 season in large part because of his background with the quarterback position. His NFL career at that spot didn’t work out, but O’Connell then became an assistant coach and was the offensive coordinator for the Rams as they won a Super Bowl.

Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, who bought the Vikings in 2005, thought they were getting a coach who could identify a long-term solution at quarterback when they hired Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress in 2006, but that didn’t go as planned. Childress took the Vikings to the 2009 NFC title game, but that was only after Brett Favre was brought out of retirement.

Childress was followed by defense-first coaches in Leslie Frazier and Mike Zimmer. O’Connell’s hiring gives the Vikings someone who knows more about quarterback play and personality than his predecessors, or former general manager Rick Spielman.

That is why it’s a logical to assume that whether there is a consensus at TCO Performance Center on a quarterback, O’Connell will have the final say. New quarterbacks coach Josh McCown, who played for nine NFL teams in a 17-year career, should serve as one of O’Connell’s primary sounding boards.

The price of prying away a top-five pick won’t be cheap — be prepared for any trade to include three first-rounders going the other way — but the Wilfs aren’t paying O’Connell big bucks to play it safe. Playing it safe rarely results in Super Bowl runs. This means it’s very likely that Drake Maye or McCarthy will be the Vikings’ choice on April 25, assuming Caleb Williams goes No. 1 to Chicago and Jayden Daniels is taken by Washington.

While O’Connell didn’t give away the Vikings’ plan, he did run through what he was looking for in a quarterback and just how much work (on and off the field) was going into the process of due diligence. That is why the Vikings were expected to have O’Connell put McCarthy, Maye and others through private workouts that would include seeing them in social settings.

O’Connell referred to these high-end passers as “building-changing quarterbacks,” because of the impact they have on every part of an organization. You also could call them career-changing quarterbacks because if you get the pick right, the team might build you a statue. If you get it wrong, you’re next stop might be the unemployment line.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at

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