Taylor Heinicke was the only rookie free agent that the Minnesota Vikings signed to their active roster when it needed to be cut down to 53 players – safety Anthony Harris would be signed to it later in the season.
The Old Dominion quarterback was a hot commodity after he did not get selected in the draft. Multiple teams were hoping to get him to sign with them, but he eventually landed with the Vikings. He saw that there was a good opportunity for him to learn there with starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater being a first-round draft pick and backup quarterback Shaun Hill being a 14-year veteran in the league.
The Vikings also have Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator and he is known for his ability to groom quarterbacks. All of those things played into Heinicke’s decision to sign with the team, and he feels as though the season could not have played out any better.
“This year was, I think, the best thing that could happen to me,” Heinicke said. “Being a first-year rookie, being a third string, I really got to sit back and soak in information, really got to learn the offense and sit behind Teddy, a first-round draft pick, and watch him play. Sit behind Shaun, who’s been in the league for 14 or 15 years now. It was great for me to just soak it all in and get better as a quarterback in that aspect. During practice there were a lot of limited reps, but again, the biggest part of being a quarterback is the mental side, so I’m sitting back, soaking it all in and I think I’ve gotten a lot better as a quarterback doing that.”
The undrafted rookie looked a little overwhelmed with the speed of the game when he first arrived at Winter Park for offseason workouts. The change of pace and learning the new playbook all appeared to be too much for him and there was some speculation going around about whether or not he would even make the team’s practice squad.
About halfway through the Vikings training camp something seemed to click for Heinicke and he looked like a different player. He was making all the right reads on the field, using his legs when he needed to and appeared comfortable out on the field.
That comfort transferred over to his play on the field during the preseason as he went 11-for-11 for 83 yards passing against the Dallas Cowboys and 27-for-41 for 279 yards and two touchdowns in the Vikings’ final preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.
His performance in the team’s final two preseason games changed the conversation, from “will Heinicke even make the practice squad?” to “will the Vikings sign him to the active roster?” Having three quarterbacks on the active roster isn’t a given in the NFL anymore, but the Vikings did just that, which showed they did not want to risk losing him.
“Yeah, that was promising for sure. And again, I feel like I proved I could play,” Heinicke said when asked about making the active roster. “In the preseason I feel like I did pretty well. But again, at the end of the day, it was their decision to do that and I’m very fortunate that they decided to put me on the active roster.”
Once the regular season rolled around, Heinicke’s role drastically changed. Coaches no longer needed to evaluate him, so snaps in practice became very limited. This was a big change from what he was used to since he had taken nearly every snap in practice dating back to his junior year in high school.
He understood why it was happening, though, as the team only had so many snaps to work with and they needed to get Bridgewater ready for the game each week. So instead of worrying about the snaps he was or wasn’t receiving, Heinicke decided to focus on the mental side of the game. What made that even easier was leaning on the experience of Hill and Turner.
“They’ve been in the business a long time, so they know what it takes to win,” he said. “They know what it takes to be successful. So again, I would just sit back, watch, really soak it in and study what they would say and try to emulate what they would do, whether that’s preparation wise or on the field. Again, I really took what they did and how they prepared. Hopefully this offseason I can use that to get better next year and help this team in some type of way to get somewhere further next year.”
Heinicke said that the coaching staff hadn’t really ever talked to him about what they have planned for him long term, so he isn’t really sure what to expect. Hill still has one year left on the two-year contract he signed last offseason, but if the coaching staff sees a continued improvement from Heinicke it is possible they could choose to have the younger quarterback back up Bridgewater next season.
That is all still a ways away, though, so right now Heinicke is just focused on relaxing a little bit and then hitting the ground running in order to improve his game as much as he can before the start of the team’s offseason workouts.
“My body is fresh; it’s ready to go,” he said. “I’ll probably start working out in the next week or two and just try to get better and be back next year.”