By Lindsey Young, For Vikings.com
MANKATO, Minn. — Several positions on the Vikings roster are currently up for grabs, and training camp offers coaches the opportunity to see which guys will best fit the roles in question. One of those spots being vied for is the third quarterback slot.
With Teddy Bridgewater starting and veteran Shaun Hill slated to fill backup, Taylor Heinicke and Mike Kafka are spending these weeks in Mankato auditioning for a chance to make the final roster.
Each has the same mindset: come out every day, work hard, and prove what he offers the team.
Heinicke, a rookie who went undrafted in 2015, found an opportunity during Sunday afternoon's practice to spend quality time with the second team offensive unit when Hill received an afternoon off.
"It was a good feeling. This past week has been up and down, but I've definitely progressed and gotten better," Heinicke said. "They put me in there with the twos, and I felt like I did some good things."
After being able to spend lots of time with the rookie receivers and then taking several snaps with the second unit, Heinicke said he is finding some chemistry with one receiver in particular: Cordarrelle Patterson.
"Me and CP have a little connection," Heinicke said, smiling. "I don't know what it is, but we do."
Heinicke delivered plenty of connections in college, passing for 14,959 yards and 132 touchdowns as he helped lead Old Dominion from FCS to FBS. The career yardage counts as the sixth-highest in FBS history, and the passing TDs are fourth-most. Heinicke also showed the ability to make run plays, tallying 22 touchdowns on the ground in four seasons.
The NFL was not always directly in his sights, however, and the rookie is grateful to have the chance at making football his career. Heinicke said he never wanted to look too far ahead but rather focus on each day as it came.
"My dad taught me, 'just keep trying to get better and focus on yourself.' Every year, going into every season, I was just trying to win."
One day at a time.
For both Heinicke and Kafka, this theme rings true during their time in Mankato.
Kafka's story leading to the Vikings looks quite different, having entered the league in 2010. Kafka spent two years as Philadelphia's third quarterback before missing 2012 due to a hand injury. Since then, he has spent time with New England, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
For Kafka, opportunity came in the form of the first NFL Veteran Combine in March. The combine offered Kafka a second chance to work out and impress upon teams. Within a month of the event, only six of 100 participants had signed contracts.
Grateful to be in Minnesota, Kafka hopes his reputation for quick delivery, good ball placement and responding well to pressure in the pocket will continue to show up at camp.
The veteran feels that this camp is one of the more competitive training camps he's been a part of — and for good reason. Thus far, he says he's been able to both mentor and glean advice himself from the other three quarterbacks. Kafka falls in the middle experience-wise, which offers him a unique perspective.
"There are always things you're going to need to work on and improve on," Kafka said, "But anything I can do to help, really — that's what I'm trying to do. I'm always learning. I can learn stuff from Teddy [Bridgewater], I can learn stuff from Shaun [Hill], so wherever I can get and make my game better, that's what I'm going to do. And whatever I can do to help those other guys, I'll do as well."
Heinicke may be a rookie, but he also brings a level of experience to the table. The Old Dominion quarterback led the team all four years, joining the school only two years after it established a football program.
"When I was being recruited in high school and Old Dominion called, I didn't even know they had a football team," Heinicke laughed. "I only knew of their basketball team."
The position lent him all the playing time possible, however, and he played in FCS and FBS classifications during his college career. Would Heinicke have traded for time on a bigger program's roster? He doesn't think so.
"The biggest thing to get better is just playing in games," Heinicke said. "If I went to a bigger school, I might have only gotten a year or two to play and wouldn't be as good as I am now. I feel like that really molded me into the player I am today."
Former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, who is now an analyst, covered Conference USA during Heinicke's time at Old Dominion. To Leber, the young quarterback stood out immediately as a leader and an incredibly hard worker with a drive to win. Leber followed Heinicke's path from college to Minnesota, and he appreciates his story.
"It's kind of like the ultimate underdog story," Leber said. "On an emotional level, I want to see [him] do well and hopefully make it in the league."
Making the transition from a smaller school to the NFL is a big leap, but Leber has picked up on some positive things from Heinicke in camp, mentally as well as athletically.
"He can have some bad plays and have some over throws, but his body language never seems like he's in the tank or given up on himself," Leber said. "He's ready for the next snap, his footwork is quick. You can see his mind trying to work and process things. I think he's grinding. He's working through some of those things."
Coaches are picking up on similar things, from both Heinicke and Kafka alike.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner said the coaching staff has enjoyed getting to see the different dynamics and development of each player.
"Things happen really fast," Turner explained. "It's one thing to walk through it; it's one thing to look at it on tape. It's another thing to have it happen full-speed out there. I think they're making progress. It's going to be fun watching them."
Kafka and Heinicke may have different backgrounds, but they're both after the same end goal: to be a part of the Minnesota Vikings. For both, each practice, each preseason game — including the upcoming Hall of Fame game on Aug. 9 — could determine where they are when the regular season kicks off.
But they will each tell you the same thing: one day at a time.