Falcons adding free-agent Taylor Heinicke, what’s next at quarterback?

All signs point to franchise moving forward with Desmond Ridder as QB1 with solid veteran leader also on roster
The Falcons are adding quarterback Taylor Heinicke to their roster via free agency. (AP file photo/Brynn Anderson)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

The Falcons are adding quarterback Taylor Heinicke to their roster via free agency. (AP file photo/Brynn Anderson)

The Falcons appear to be “Riding with Ridder” at quarterback.

There has not been an official proclamation out of Flowery Branch or a sighting of white smoke coming from the AMB Family Business building in Buckhead.

But that’s the conclusion after the Falcons agreed to terms to a two-year deal worth up to $20 million with veteran backup Taylor Heinicke on Tuesday. A former Collins Hill standout who’s crafted together a nice NFL career after starring at Old Dominion, Heinicke is set to sign with the team after 4 p.m. Wednesday, the start of the NFL’s new business year.

Team officials are not allowed to comment on prospective free-agent deals.

The Falcons, who have declined to declare Desmond Ridder the new starting quarterback all offseason, made their intentions known by not going after Lamar Jackson and by signing Heinicke, who has a 12-12-1 record as a starter, including two wins over the Falcons and coach Arthur Smith over the past two seasons.

The deal makes Ridder, who was drafted in the third round (74th overall) of the 2022 draft, the de facto starting quarterback. Starting quarterbacks in free agency have received mega-deals, with some averaging more than $40 million a year.

Heinicke has played the past three seasons with the Commanders. He’s also spent time with the Vikings, Patriots, Texans and Panthers. He’s played in 33 NFL games and made 25 starts, including nine last season.

The Falcons elected not to pursue Jackson, a veteran quarterback and former league MVP, after he received the non-exclusive franchise tag from the Ravens.

The veteran quarterback market was starting to dry up after Derek Carr (Saints), Geno Smith (Seahawks) and Jimmy Garoppolo (Raiders) signed.

Also, the Falcons hold the eighth pick in the draft but likely would have to trade up in the draft to land one of the top quarterback prospects. The draft is set for April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank, general manager Terry Fontenot and Smith have refused to publicly declare Ridder as their quarterback of the future.

The Falcons released Marcus Mariota, who started the first 13 games last season. He left the team after he was demoted. Logan Woodside was signed to back up Ridder.

Last offseason, the Falcons were in the derby to sign Deshaun Watson and were considered the front-runner until Cleveland gave him a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract.

Some people were stunned that the Falcons didn’t go after Jackson, after they went after Watson last offseason.

The Falcons then traded Matt Ryan to the Colts for a third-round pick. He was the Falcons’ quarterback for 14 seasons and took the franchise to Super Bowl LI. Mariota quickly was signed as a stopgap measure.

Last season, Ridder took over, and the Falcons lost to the Saints on Dec. 18 and then the Ravens on Dec. 24 and were eliminated from the playoffs.

However, Ridder showed some signs of promise and went on to post wins over the Cardinals and Buccaneers, with the latter playing their backups for a little more than half of the final game.

Ridder was without tight end Kyle Pitts, who was on injured reserve. He established a connection with rookie wide receiver Drake London. Ridder would have been aided by having another target such as Pitts, who went down with a knee injury after a hit in the Chicago game Nov. 20.

Ridder played 271 offensive snaps and handled his pre-snap reads well, according to offensive coordinator Dave Ragone. Ridder completed 73 of 115 passes (63.5%) for 708 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 86.4.

One of the concerns about Ridder and the reasons why he lasted until the third round was because of his accuracy. He made 20 bad throws for an 18.2 bad-throw percentage, according to Pro Football Reference’s advanced stats. A total of 83 passes were on target for a 75.5 on-target percentage.

Heinicke had a spectacular career at Old Dominion. He once passed for 790 yards in one game and finished with 14,959 yards passing for 132 touchdowns and 38 interceptions. He completed 67.7% of his passes and rushed for another 1,320 yards.

Because of his size (6-foot-1) and perceived arm-strength issues, he wasn’t drafted. He signed with the Vikings and had a stint on the Patriots’ practice squad before landing on the Texans’ practice squad.

With Houston, Heinicke was promoted during the 2017 season to back up T.J. Yates and Tom Savage. Yates is now the Falcons’ wide receivers coach.

Heinicke played with the Panthers in 2018. In a Week 16 start against the Falcons, he completed 33 of 53 passes for 274 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. He was subbing for Cam Newton, who was out with a shoulder injury.

It was a breakthrough game for Heinicke.

He didn’t play in 2019 but signed with the Commanders in 2020. With Alex Smith out with an injury, he started in a wild-card playoff game against Tampa Bay and passed for 306 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and he rushed for a touchdown in a 31-23 loss.

In 2021, he led the Commanders to a 34-30 win over the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 3. He completed 23 of 33 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 127.1 and tossed a game-winning 33-yard touchdown pass to J.D. McKissic with 33 seconds to play.

Last season, he led the Commanders to a 19-13 victory over the Falcons at FedEx Field on Nov. 27. He completed 14 of 23 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception and a passer rating of 88.7.

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