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Inside Kevin O'Connell's plan for picking Vikings' next quarterback

ORLANDO — The NFL owners' meetings conclude at the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott Grande Lakes on Tuesday, releasing general managers and coaches from the proceedings just in time for the pro days of two of the 2024 draft's biggest prospects: LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels' on Wednesday, with North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye's to follow on Thursday.

Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell has his own brisk agenda, crisscrossing the country for workouts and meetings with the passers who might become his team's headliner in a month. The pro days have little to do with it.

During an interview session with Twin Cities reporters at the owners' meetings on Monday, O'Connell laid out something of a manifesto for how the Vikings will build their quarterback position after Kirk Cousins' departure. They will prioritize private meetings — where they can walk a possible draft pick through their offense and immediately ask him to perform elements of it on the field — over pro days where they don't control the script. They will use on-field mistakes to see how a QB responds to coaching, and observe a player's interactions during on-campus lunches to gauge how he handles the spotlight inherent to the position. And they will keep Justin Jefferson informed throughout the spring.

"I feel very strongly about that," O'Connell said. "He's been in the loop, he's been aware, he's allowed to articulate things to me."

The Vikings, who have the 11th overall pick in the draft, acquired the 23rd choice in a trade with the Texans earlier this month. They could pair the picks, trade into the top five and make a player such as Daniels, Maye or Michigan's J.J. McCarthy the highest-drafted QB in franchise history. If a trade up doesn't materialize, the Vikings would have to assess whether there's a QB worth taking at No. 11, or possibly later in the first round if they use their top pick at another position.

Trading up to draft a QB is a "major, major organizational decision," O'Connell said, and the Vikings need everyone from the front office to the coaching staff aligned behind the player the team would select in that kind of a move. The coach's job, for now, is to do as much as he can to simulate what life would be like with one of the QBs in the first round.

"When you're selecting a quarterback of the future, with guys like Justin, Jordan [Addison], T.J. [Hockenson], our passing game thrives off of accuracy, rhythm, timing. Some of the traits that show up on these guys' tapes, you get really excited about that," O'Connell said. "But it's also about toughness, football intelligence, the leadership traits I'm looking for, to take what I believe is one of the strongest locker rooms in the NFL and take it to an even better place as a young player. That's a dynamic person you're talking about."

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He cited Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, who "went in there and was a part of changing that culture."

"All of those things matter," O'Connell said. "That's why it's hard to just say one guy versus the other at this point, because there's so many layers to it. I think we need to do the kind of job I hope our fans expect, as far as the evaluation. If we're able to take one, we're not going to leave anything to chance. That's just my philosophy about it."

The Vikings' typical visits with prospects begin in the classroom, watching college film with a QB to learn how he was coached to approach a given play and going over the Vikings' playbook to see how quickly a player can absorb new concepts. They'll go from there into an on-field workout and see "how they respond to us as coaches," O'Connell said.

"You can ask them questions and see how fast they remember things, how fast they're digesting the information," he added. "How clearly can they put that information into real, tangible things that then, I can use as a coach for feedback? You can go on the grass and see if they understand how we want to set our feet and eyes on this drop, or, when we talk about pocket movement, what that looks like. When we talk about on-schedule versus off-schedule, red zone, third down, how it fits within the framework of, not our system, but the system we want to build for them."

O'Connell will often ask a player to pick his favorite spot for lunch on campus, with the Vikings picking up the tab.

"I want to see how they interact with folks," the coach said, "because building-changing quarterbacks, they don't just change the facilities. Any room they ever walk into, they light it up. They change it, they impact it and I think you can see that on display in an authentic way when you do the full process with those trips."

With the 11th pick in a draft where the top three teams (Chicago, Washington and New England) could all take quarterbacks, the Vikings aren't guaranteed to land the quarterback they want. The stakes of the decision, especially if it involves a trade up, mean the Vikings need full agreement about a player who could define General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah's and O'Connell's tenure together.

The Vikings' decisionmakers have the support of ownership; co-owner Mark Wilf said Monday the Wilfs will leave it to Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell to work through the quarterback evaluation as they see fit. They ultimately don't control which quarterbacks will be available to them on draft night.

If there's one thing they can control, it's a predraft process O'Connell hopes will reveal as much about the rookie quarterbacks as it can.

"I think [pro days] are great. I think the guys are doing a great job with them," O'Connell said. "It's valuable for us as a piece of it, but nothing compares to really completing that whole process with a visit, or maybe coming to the Twin Cities for one of our [top-] 30 visits."