After NFL stops in Minnesota, New England, Houston, Carolina and Washington — not to mention a cup of coffee with the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL — Taylor Heinicke has returned home.
Heinicke, a standout quarterback at Collins Hill High School who in 2010 was the Gwinnett Daily Post’s Offensive Player of the Year (with more than 4,200 passing yards and 44 touchdowns), on Thursday signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons.
It was reported that Heinicke — who celebrated his 30th birthday on March 15 — agreed to a two-year deal for $14 million. And as has been the case throughout his nine-year professional career, it is expected that Heinicke will serve as the backup for second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder, who started the Falcons’ final four games in 2022
During a Zoom conference call on Thursday, Heinicke indicated he’ll fulfill any role asked of him by Falcons coach Arthur Smith.
“Try to be the best backup I can to (Ridder), try to help him any way I can,” said Heinicke. “I remember when I was a rookie and even in my second year as well we had Shaun Hill in the room at Minnesota. As a young guy in this league, you’re getting things thrown at you from every direction and it’s hard to balance what’s going on, so Shaun was a great mentor for me and helped me a lot through that process, and I hope to be the same for Desmond.
“If he needs anything from me or if I see anything I can help him with, that’s what I’m here for. I’m very excited to work with him.”
Heinicke added that the Falcons made no lofty promises to him regarding his role on the team but added he’ll be prepared to go into battle — just like he did with the Vikings, Panthers and Commanders — when and if he’s called upon.
“They drafted (Ridder) high last year for a reason and they believe in him for a reason,” he said. “He showed some good film last year. If something unfortunate happens to him, I’ll be ready to go — that’s kind of been my life the last three years. It’s kind of the same territory.
“I hope (an injury) doesn’t happen to Des; I hope he stays healthy but I feel I’ve gone through every situation you can go through in football and it’s molded me into the player I am today.”
A standout at Old Dominion (where he once threw for more than 700 yards in a come-from-behind victory over New Hampshire in 2012), Heinicke went undrafted in 2015 and signed a free agent deal with Minnesota, remaining with the Vikings for two season despite never taking a gametime snap.
After brief stops with the Patriots and Texans, Heinicke signed with Carolina in 2018 and earned his first significant playing time after quarterback Cam Newton suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Ironically, his first NFL start came two days before Christmas against Atlanta in a 24-10 loss.
When asked about that game — in which he completed 33 passes for 274 yards and a touchdown — Heinicke recalled it was a “good news, bad news” kind of Sunday afternoon.
“That was a tough game,” he said. “(Falcons defensive lineman and Rockdale County native) Grady Jarrett sacked me early in the first half and I tried to brace myself and ended up tearing my triceps and I thought that may be my last game ever. I hounded the trainer to give me everything he had. The stats look alright, but I threw three picks and we lost, so that was a tough day.”
After a short XFL spell in 2020, Heinicke returned to the NFL with Washington and stepped in for the late Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith that fall. The next season, he was named Washington’s starter after Ryan Fitzpatrick was injured in the first week and had his most productive NFL year, starting 15 games and completing 321 of 494 passes (65%) for 3,419 yards, 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Last year, Heinicke — who began the season as Carson Wentz’s backup — earned nine starts and connected on 62% of his passes for 1,859 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.
He became a free agent at the end of the 2022 campaign and had considered remaining in the nation’s capital until the Falcons came calling.
“This whole process has been very new to me; this was the first time I was a free agent, where I could kind of explore my options,” he said Thursday. “It’s been a roller-coaster process — a lot of ups and downs — and Atlanta said they were interested from the beginning.
“I didn’t know how much interest there was, but there was some interest there, and honestly I was about to sign back with Washington two or three days ago, and Atlanta comes in with a better (offer), and I sat back and thought about it.”
Heinicke assented that he enjoyed his time in Washington, his longest tour of duty in the NFL.
“It was very tough. I feel that’s a home for me,” he said. “I have a lot of great relationships and great memories there — they gave me my second chance at football. There are a lot of special people up there but I’m going from one home to another, and it’s a pretty easy process, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little heartbroken to leave those people up there.”
Born into a family of Wisconsin natives, Heinicke said he grew up a Green Bay Packers fan but had an interest in the Falcons during Michael Vick’s heyday. He said he’s happy to be a Falcon for a number of reasons, including the fact that his 18-month-old nephew Jack Joseph (“JJ”) will be able to see him play.
And after buying a house several years ago in Flowery Branch, Heinicke will not enjoy something that most metro Atlantans only dream about — a quick commute.
“It’s a seven-minute drive to work,” he said.
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