The Washington Commanders did not believe in Taylor Heinicke entering the 2022 season. It’s why they traded for Carson Wentz. After six weeks of poor play culminating in an injury, the Commanders were forced to turn back to Heinicke. Given Heinicke’s better-than-expected performance, will the Commanders give him a new contract to remain in Washington in 2023 and beyond?
Taylor Heinicke Probably Deserves To Be a Starting Quarterback
No one will mistake Heinicke for an elite quarterback. But the 2015 UDFA is already in the 99th percentile of UDFA quarterbacks in NFL history. It’s exceedingly rare for a UDFA to even have a career, let alone bounce around the league for half a decade, finally get a chance to prove himself, and actually do it.
Heinicke started a playoff game in 2020 and nearly beat a still-elite Tom Brady. After a below-average 2021 season, the Commanders were looking for an upgrade. Unfortunately, Wentz was not it. Even after he fully recovered from his injury, the Commanders stuck with the guy who won five of his first six starts in 2022.
By no means do I think Heinicke is even a top-half starter. However, he’s certainly in the top 32. The state of the quarterback position in the NFL is as bad as I can remember. Less than half of teams can confidently say their long-term answer at quarterback is on their roster.
Heinicke may not be a long-term answer for any team, but unless a team is in a position to draft one of the top prospects, he’s as good of an interim option as they’re going to find.
The Commanders Can Definitely Afford a New Contract for Heinicke…If They Want
Heinicke played the 2022 season on a one-year, $1.5 million contract. While he will certainly not break the bank for any team that wants to sign him, he will cost more than $1.5 million in 2023.
The Commanders have the eighth-most salary cap space available. Unfortunately, that number is still just $6.7 million.
The biggest drain on their cap is Wentz. His contract extends through the 2025 season. However, how it is structured enables the Commanders to cut him ahead of the 2023 season without any dead cap hit. That seems quite likely to occur.
Cutting Wentz would save them $28 million. Even with an increase in salary, there’s no chance Heinicke comes with a $28 million cap hit in 2023.
What Might the Quarterback Market Look Like?
As the most important position in football, quarterback salaries are always inflated. Even mediocre starters make more than most other positions.
Heinicke doesn’t strike me as the type of quarterback to get a lengthy deal. Wherever he ends up, a one- or two-year contract seems more probable than a four or five-year deal.
A good comparison might be Marcus Mariota, who got two years, $18.75 million from the Falcons. To be fair, Mariota is a former first-round pick and thus comes with more clout than Heinicke, regardless of their level of play. Fair or not, $10 million a year feels like Heinicke’s ceiling.
The Giants gave Tyrod Taylor two years, $11 million to back up Daniel Jones. That strikes me as Heinicke’s absolute floor, given the way he’s played.
Where Could Taylor Heinicke Land in 2023?
Given the Commanders’ performance in the 2022 season, a return to Washington feels like the most likely outcome. They certainly should take a shot on a quarterback in the 2023 NFL Draft, but they won’t be in a position to take any of the top prospects.
I don’t see the Commanders signing Jimmy Garoppolo or Geno Smith, nor do I see them making yet another trade for a veteran stopgap. It makes all too much sense for them to bring Heinicke back on a two-year deal and to take that time to decide if they want to go all-in on a veteran or blow it up.
In the event Heinicke goes elsewhere, there will be no shortage of teams looking for a competent starter.
The Texans will take a quarterback with the first overall pick. Teams like the Cardinals and Bears aren’t about to give up on the guy they already have. That leaves teams like the Saints, Falcons, Panthers, and Colts as possible landing spots.
All four of these teams do not have their answer at quarterback on their rosters. It’s fair to say Heinicke would be an upgrade on the guy each of them has now. If they can’t find a way to draft or trade for a top quarterback, Heinicke is not a bad contingency plan.
With that said, I expect the Commanders to work out an extension with Heinicke — I’m just not sure if it will happen prior to 2023 free agency. Heinicke may opt to test the market. But he’ll ultimately realize the team that knows him better than anyone is in the best position to give him the best deal.