<
>

Panthers seem content with Taylor Heinicke backing up Cam Newton

Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke isn't the same type of running threat as starter Cam Newton, but defenses have to respect his scrambling ability. Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was speculation during the offseason that the Carolina Panthers might be interested in reuniting new offensive coordinator Norv Turner with former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

It didn't happen.

The Panthers also apparently were content on Thursday with letting the New York Jets trade Bridgewater to NFC South rival New Orleans to back up Drew Brees.

The reason?

Taylor Heinicke.

The former Old Dominion star, like Bridgewater, was a disciple of Turner's in Minnesota. The Panthers wasted little time claiming Heinicke off waivers in April -- after his release from the Houston Texans -- because Turner wanted him.

Although he opened training camp third on the depth chart behind Garrett Gilbert, Heinicke consistently impressed coaches with his accuracy in Turner's high-efficiency passing attack and his ability to make plays with his legs ... à la Cam Newton.

Heinicke made the decision to move on from 35-year-old veteran Derek Anderson, Newton's backup since entering the league in 2011, look like a good one.

Or at least not a complete disaster.

Although he has thrown only one pass in an NFL regular-season game, Heinicke did more than enough to win the backup job. He played well enough that the Panthers should feel comfortable going with two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster, which likely will include an extra offensive lineman because of injuries.

He likely cemented the job in Thursday's preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After a 1-for-5 start, Heinicke -- playing with all backups -- completed six of his next seven, including a nice 6-yard back-shoulder touchdown pass to Mose Frazier.

He finished the preseason 24-of-36 for 323 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He also rushed five times for 23 yards and a touchdown.

Whether he's good enough to lead the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game, as Case Keenum did for the Vikings, or to the Super Bowl, as Nick Foles did for Philadelphia -- both doing so last season after beginning the season as backups -- remains to be seen.

In all likelihood, the Panthers will go nowhere if Newton is injured.

Bridgewater would have offered more insurance. There are no guarantees Heinicke can win a regular-season game, much less a playoff game.

But as Turner said in May, you've got to start somewhere.

"Last year was a great example of guys stepping up and playing who really had not had a lot of success in their past," Turner said when he began looking for Newton's backup. "Somewhere along the way, you're probably going to play a guy that has limited experience.

"Foles had struggled with a couple of teams, and then he got into a good situation with good coaches and good players."

When Foles took over in Philadelphia, he couldn't do all the things starter Carson Wentz did. But the staff played to Foles' strengths, and that's what Turner would do with Heinicke should something happen to Newton.

Gilbert has a stronger arm, but he's basically a one-trick pony.

Although Heinicke doesn't have the reputation as a runner that Newton does -- at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, he can't bowl over defenders like Carolina's 6-5, 245-pound starter -- he does enough to make defenses respect him as a runner.

He scrambled 6 yards for a first down on his first series against Pittsburgh. On the first play of the second quarter, he sidestepped a big inside rush and threw to his tight end for a 20-yard gain.

His touchdown pass to Frazier was impressive because he put it in the only spot it could have been caught and threw it before the receiver was open.

And he's efficient. He completed 70.8 percent in the first three preseason games.

Heinicke, referred to by Newton as "Heineken," isn't at Bridgewater's level. He might never be. But the 25-year-old comes at a better price, $705,000 compared with the $5 million the Saints will have to pay Bridgewater this season unless they restructure his deal.

Bridgewater, 25, could reportedly earn up to $9 million in incentives based on playing time, yards and touchdowns.

The Panthers never would have agreed to inherit a deal like that. They couldn't afford to.

That's a lot for a backup, particularly one so young who is looking for a chance to start. With Brees, 39, nearing the end of his career, that could come sooner rather than later.

If the Panthers are going to trade for a backup, perhaps it would be Pittsburgh's Josh Dobbs, who threw for 169 yards and two touchdowns against them. He's also mobile, avoiding several sacks against Carolina, and has been the subject of trade rumors.

But again, Dobbs would have to accept that he'll be a backup for a long time. Newton is only 29. He also is durable, missing only three starts in seven seasons despite being hit more than any other quarterback since 2011.

With a long list of injuries on the offensive line -- left tackle Matt Kalil (knee), right tackle Daryl Williams (knee), left guard Amini Silatolu (knee) and guard/tackle Jeremiah Sirles (hamstring) -- mobility would be another plus for the backup should Newton get hurt.

Those injuries also mean the Panthers might have to keep 10 offensive linemen on the final roster instead of nine. No timetable has been given for the return of the injured, although Kalil likely has the best chance to play in Week 1 against Dallas and the others should be back sooner rather than later.

Rivera said five or six spots remain "up in the air" as the roster shrinks from 90 to 53 on Saturday.

Because of Heinicke, backup quarterback isn't one of them.