NFL news mailbag: Thoughts on Taylor Heinicke’s status with Commanders, and which rookie QB has the best chance to start Week 1?

This week's Pro Football Network NFL news mailbag features questions exclusively about the quarterback position heading into training camp.

The bulk of the NFL is on vacation, but Pro Football Network isn’t resting. Lead NFL reporter Mike Kaye has opened up our NFL news mailbag to answer some pressing QB questions.

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NFL news mailbag: Commanders, Falcons, and more

Any thoughts on Washington Commanders QB Taylor Heinicke’s response regarding the competition for a starting role and embracing a backup role?

On Wednesday, Taylor Heinicke, the Commanders’ de facto starting QB of last season, was asked if he had any chance of wrestling the starting job away from newly acquired signal-caller Carson Wentz this summer. Heinicke responded with the following answer:

“I don’t think that’s an option. You look at the NFL, and at the end of the day, it’s kind of a business. And if you’re paying someone $30 million and you’re paying someone else $2 million, you’re paying this guy $30 million to play.

“Carson’s a great quarterback and you see it through OTAs and minicamp, and I hope he goes out there and succeeds. Again, my job is to just back him up — hopefully, he’s on his deal — [I’ll] help him any way I can, and if for some reason, he goes down, I’m ready to go play. So, that’s how I look at it. But again, the NFL is a business, you’re paying a guy a lot of money, you’re paying him for a reason: it’s for him to play.”

To Heinicke’s point, the Commanders traded two Day 2 picks and took on Wentz’s entire $28.3 million salary (including an already paid $6.3 million bonus) in March. That’s quite the investment for a franchise that was looking to upgrade over Heinicke, despite his 7-8 record as a fill-in starter last season. Heinicke isn’t dense. He knows the score, and his openness about his understanding of his job was admirable.

There are backups who accept they are backups, and then there are backups who try to force the issue to the detriment of the team. Heinicke clearly isn’t that guy, even if he’s a competitor. Given how Wentz reacted to the arrival of Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia in 2020, it’s in Washington’s best interest for Heinicke to not project himself as a threat.

That said, Heinicke put forth a valiant effort last season despite several key injuries and COVID-19 absences around him. Heinicke won seven games as the starting QB, tying the win total of the previous season when Washington sleepwalked into a division title. He produced 3,410 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions during a season full of adversity and probably wasn’t given enough credit last season.

Top 5 QB backups in the NFL

In my opinion, Heinicke has the best outlook of any backup QB in the league this season — excluding Baker Mayfield (for obvious reasons) and the San Francisco 49ers’ cloudy QB situation. Also, based on last year’s performance, he’s probably the most equipped backup QB to come in and win games if Wentz goes down or struggles.

Here’s how I’d rank the top five backup QBs in the league right now (without factoring in Mayfield or the 49ers):

1) Taylor Heinicke, Washington Commanders
2) Gardner Minshew, Philadelphia Eagles
3) Teddy Bridgewater, Miami Dolphins
4) Nick Foles, Indianapolis Colts
5) Andy Dalton, New Orleans Saints

If a QB injury occurs in training camp with a potential playoff contender, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Heinicke become a trade asset, especially with fifth-round pick, rookie Sam Howell, waiting in the wings behind him and Wentz. As Heinicke stated, his contract upside is just $2 million this year. That’s a perfectly digestible contract for a team looking for an emergency starter.

Which rookie QB has the best chance to start Week 1?

While he started the offseason as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 3 QB, first-round pick Kenny Pickett is the rookie with the best chance to start in Week 1. That said, Pickett and the rest of his classmates should be given ample time before they are mistakenly thrown into the fire.

As Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett told PFN in March, this QB class has potential, but the group is going to need time to adjust to the NFL game.

Pickett is the most NFL-ready of the class, which is partially why he was the only QB selected in the first two rounds of April’s draft. While rookies like Atlanta’s Desmond Ridder and Carolina’s Matt Corral face underwhelming veteran competition on their respective depth charts, neither player is worth rushing out onto the field in Week 1. The pair of third-round picks should be given time to grow, as their investment was made for the future.

Having said all of this — barring injury — I don’t expect a rookie QB to start in Week 1. Mitchell Trubisky should get the nod for Pittsburgh in the opener, but I’d expect him to have little leeway in the overarching picture with the QB1 spot.

What week will Desmond Ridder take over for Marcus Mariota?

While Ridder probably won’t be the Atlanta Falcons’ Week 1 starter, he projects as a rookie backup who will push veteran Marcus Mariota all season. Atlanta has one of the worst rosters in the NFL, and their depth chart on offense is especially troublesome. So there’s a strong chance that Mariota, a former first-round pick, faces some early adversity this season.

Ridder was a four-year starter at Cincinnati, and he immediately turned the program into a consistent winner after years of mediocrity. Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy was effusive in his praise of Ridder before the draft and noted to PFN that he has the rare ability to make the players around him better. Nagy also praised Ridder’s work ethic, leadership, and maturity.

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith recently backed up Nagy’s praise when addressing Ridder’s advanced intangibles.

“He’s light years ahead of most other young quarterbacks from the neck up,” Smith said of Ridder (via the AP). “I will give him that compliment.”

Compliments aside, while the Falcons are clearly rebuilding, Smith obviously wants to start off strong this season. The best way to accomplish that is by having the veteran Mariota start in Week 1.

Still, Mariota, who has a background with Smith from their days in Tennessee, won’t have a very long leash. If Ridder continues to impress behind the scenes and in training camp through the preseason, the rookie could take control fairly soon.

The Falcons start the season at home against the New Orleans Saints. After that, they head out for a two-week road trip against the Los Angeles Rams — the defending Super Bowl champs — and the Seattle Seahawks. While the Saints and Seahawks have their concerns, on paper, they’re better than Atlanta. If Mariota and the Falcons stumble to an 0-3 start, Ridder could get the call.

That said, the real pressure point for the Mariota-Ridder dynamic is probably Week 8, when the Falcons host the Carolina Panthers. There’s a good chance that Atlanta falls off the rails in the first seven weeks, and that would allow Smith to yank the vet for the rookie in earnest. The Falcons can then present their young QB in a division game at home and let him roll from there with little pressure.

Mike Kaye is the Lead NFL Reporter for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter: @mike_e_kaye.

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