On Tuesday, former Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke agreed to a two-year deal with his hometown Atlanta Falcons to be their backup, according to two people with knowledge of the deal. The contract is worth $14 million — or up to $20 million after incentives. It also includes a $4 million signing bonus, bringing his total guarantees to $6.32 million.
The Commanders also released running back J.D. McKissic and placed an original-round restricted free agent tender, worth $2.672 million, on safety Jeremy Reaves, an all-pro pick on special teams.
The most notable move was the one the Commanders didn’t make with Heinicke.
During his two-plus seasons in Washington, Heinicke started 24 games for a 12-11-1 record. In his 26 total games, he completed 64 percent of his passes for 5,415 yards and 33 touchdowns with 21 interceptions and an 87.5 passer rating. He also led Washington on five fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives.
Heinicke had been out of the NFL for 16 months and was living at his sister’s house in Atlanta studying for final exams in advanced mathematics when Washington signed him in December 2020 as its “quarantine quarterback” during the coronavirus pandemic. Weeks later, he was called upon to be a backup and then the starter.
“I always told myself I’m going to give myself two years from the last game I play to see if I can get back in it, and I think that’s kind of a good window,” Heinicke said in 2021 of his time away from the NFL. “Those two years were creeping up there. … If I didn’t get the call to get called up [in 2020], I was going to hang it up and start a new chapter in my life.”
Heinicke came off the bench in place of Dwayne Haskins in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Carolina Panthers, then got his first career playoff start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
Heinicke’s performance in a close loss to the Bucs landed him a two-year deal. Washington signed Ryan Fitzpatrick as its starter in 2021, only to watch him go down in the season opener with a hip injury. Heinicke started 15 games in his absence and filled in again in 2022 after Carson Wentz suffered a broken finger in Week 6. Heinicke earned the starting job (albeit briefly) and put the team in playoff contention.
But Coach Ron Rivera benched Heinicke late in a Week 16 loss, and Wentz replaced him the following week against the Cleveland Browns. That loss ended Washington’s postseason hopes and probably ended its run with Heinicke, too.
“Yeah, it sucks,” he said of being benched. “You know, every guy in this locker room should feel like they should start. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t be in this league.”
Although Washington said it hoped to keep Heinicke as the backup to Sam Howell, the team wasn’t willing to spend much, and it was clear Heinicke would have options — to earn more and to reset after a sour ending.
McKissic, with whom Washington also cut ties Tuesday, was another 2020 free agent signing who briefly was a key part of the offense. He epitomized the type of player Rivera sought in trying to improve Washington’s roster in his first few years: a less-heralded acquisition who proved more valuable than expected.
McKissic developed into Washington’s third-down back, but the emergence of third-round pick Brian Robinson Jr. pushed McKissic down on the depth chart in 2022, and McKissic’s health became an issue. He suffered a concussion and a neck injury in 2021, and in November 2022 he was placed on injured reserve with the expectation he would undergo months of rehab for his neck. He was released Tuesday with a failed physical designation.
Washington did, however, tender Reaves, giving him a bump in pay from his $965,000 salary last season. Under the original-round tender, Reaves can seek offers from other teams until April 21. The Commanders would then have the right to match whatever offer he might receive and keep him. Should they decline to match, they would not receive any draft compensation in return.
The Commanders could also try to sign Reaves to a longer-term deal. A safety out of South Alabama, Reaves signed with the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2018 draft but was cut before the season. He signed with Washington weeks later and bounced on and off the active roster for four seasons.
Reaves made an impression as a reserve safety when Washington’s secondary was depleted in 2020 and 2021, but he built his career on special teams, primarily as the punt protector. Last season was the first in which he made the initial active roster. He recorded 16 special teams tackles (tied for the second most in the NFL), earned a Pro Bowl selection as the NFC’s special teams player and was voted first-team all-pro.