FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – For rookie minicamp, the New York Jets bring in a series of temporary lockers that they park in the center of the locker room. These lockers are given to the rookies who were either draft picks or signed rookie free agent deals after going undrafted. No one is given a permanent locker yet like the veterans, they all live out of these temporary lockers until they make either the 53-man roster or the practice squad.
Then there is a ring of white chairs that surround those lockers. These are the tryout players, here at rookie minicamp without a contract and hoping just to make the team. They don't get a locker, just a chair, as they live out of their bookbags. It is stratification and status as these are the players who come to rookie minicamp with a dream. Most of them won't make it.
On one of those chairs sat a playbook, a piece of tape with the name "Heaps" on the cover. It belongs to Jake Heaps and it was almost unfathomable five years ago that he would be here in rookie minicamp as a tryout player.
In 2010, Heaps was considered a lock to be a first round pick as the high school senior was one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the nation. Today, Heaps believes that he is still the same player who excited recruiting analysts and pulled in offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Florida State and Tennessee. Rivals.com once had him as the top quarterback in the nation and the No. 63 player in the recruiting class his senior year. But after three college stops and a final year where he wasn't injured but threw just 12 passes, Heaps has a lot of proving to do.
That's nothing new for the former blue-chip quarterback, once labeled as a can't miss prospect. He had the type of tape that made colleges drool, the poise in the pocket and velocity that just can't be taught.
He enrolled early at BYU, drawing an end to a recruitment that was national. The thought process was that he would spend four years, perhaps just three years, in Provo then bolt for the NFL.
“Coming out as the No. 1 quarterback in the country and the amount of success that I had for myself, it was a lot,” Heaps told Metro. “I was excited to just play college ball and just got out there and live out my dreams.”
Except it didn't turn out that way. At BYU, he experienced a quarterback battle that he termed as one that “wasn't the most healthy” and he describes a divided locker room over the situation. After just two seasons, he left the program and transferred to Kansas.
Heaps said he truly wanted to "make it work" at BYU but he ultimately ended up with the Jayhawks under then-head coach Charlie Weis. That seemed like a good fit on paper as Weis was considered an offensive guru at the time and was promising to turn around a Kansas program that was borderline horrible.
Heaps had to sit out the 2012 season due to NCAA transfer rules. The 2013 season saw Heaps start, but Kansas went just 3-9. He had more interceptions (10) then touchdowns (8) that year and a completion percentage of 49 percent. All that hype from three years earlier? It evaporated.
There was a brief glimmer of hope for Heaps as he transferred to Miami for a fifth year where he faced yet another quarterback competition. He lost this one to Brad Kaaya, a younger player that the coaching staff wanted to build around, rather than a fifth-year quarterback who was set to leave the following season. Heaps wasn't the long-term answer, the coaching staff felt. Might as well invest in Kaaya.
Heaps ended up throwing just 12 passes and got zero buzz heading into the NFL Draft. Yet, despite the three stops that included a divided locker room, a horrible Big XII team and then a quarterback competition minus the competition, Heaps still felt like he belonged in the NFL. That promise from high school, he says, still existed.
“I definitely felt like talent and ability-wise, I definitely felt like I belonged there. That was maybe the hardest part. I felt like I should have been there. From my college career, I knew there was obvious reasons why maybe I shouldn't be there,” Heaps said. “I was ready for the challenge, I kept trusting and believing in my abilities.”
He went through the seven rounds of the NFL Draft without being picked and the Jets brought him in to rookie minicamp without a contract. Five years earlier, no one would have thought that Heaps would be anything but a multi-million dollar draft pick.
Yet there he sat in a white chair with no locker, a player without so much as a contract in on a tryout.
So far he's done well, earning a contract after rookie minicamp and working his way up the depth chart. A couple weeks ago, the Jets released Matt Simms, who was on the practice squad last year and was the team's third-string quarterback. They kept Heaps and cut a play who has actual NFL experience.
That perhaps, is telling. That also perhaps shows that the promise of a quarterback once rated as the best in the nation is finally coming around.
Oh, and a couple weeks ago, he moved into one of those lockers they brought in for rookies. No more white chair for Heaps.
“At the end of the day I've just been focused on me, focused on what I'm doing each and every day. That's what helped me up to this point. Not worrying about things I cna't control. Not worried about roster decisions. If I go out there and perform the way I know I can, the way I know I can play, then I'll let the chips fall where they may,” Heaps said. “I absolutely believe that I have the ability to start in this league. It's a matter of continuing to work hard every day and try to make it happen. Listen to the coaches, listen to the guys in here with experience. Work hard, show up early, stay late. It is all cliché, right? But it's what I want to do. I know I can be in this league.
“Now I just need to go out there and put in the work.”