Unproven Heinicke receives opportunity with Newton out

FILE PHOTO: Aug 24, 2018; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke (6) looks to pass the ball in the third quarter against the New England Patriots at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons: Running back Devonta Freeman won’t return this season after having his campaign hindered by knee and groin injuries. Falcons coach Dan Quinn told radio station 92.9 The Game that he kept the option open unless Freeman recovered but it is now clear there is no need to do so with two games left and the team out of playoff contention. “He won’t make it back in the next couple of weeks,” Quinn said. “We were always keeping that option available with him to return, depending on how we finished and where we’d go. But now that we have a sense that he wouldn’t make it back in the next few days to get the practice reps needed to play, he won’t make it back.” Freeman carried the ball just 14 times for 68 yards in two games.

Carolina Panthers: Quarterback Taylor Heinicke will make his first career start against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday with Cam Newton (shoulder) declared out of the contest. Heinicke passed for 132 touchdowns at Old Dominion but was not selected in the 2015 draft and bounced around until landing with the Panthers. He has thrown four passes this season for the Panthers, and one last season for the Houston Texans. “I know he’s excited for the opportunity, and we’re excited to see what he can do,” center Ryan Kalil told reporters. “I haven’t had a lot of experience playing with him, and most of the reps I’ve taken with him have been in practice. But from what I’ve seen this year, I think he’s very talented. He’s a very sharp, detailed kid.”

New Orleans Saints: Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (knee) returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since going on injured reserve in mid-October. The participation begins the 21-day window in which Ginn can be activated but New Orleans likely won’t need that much time to make a decision with the postseason looming. Failing to activate Ginn would mean he would remain on IR for the rest of the campaign. The 12-year veteran has 12 receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns in four games. The Saints have received a huge season from Michael Thomas (109 receptions) but only one other wide receiver — Tre’Quan Smith with 24 — has more receptions than Ginn.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Receiver Mike Evans wasn’t selected to the Pro Bowl but is the first alternate should any of the four chosen NFC wideouts decide to pull out of the contest. Evans, who has 74 receptions for a career-high 1,328 yards and five touchdowns, said he wasn’t surprised with being passed over. “I’m not disappointed,” Evans told reporters. “I kind of knew the eight (receivers) midway through the season and it’s hard to change that. You’ve got to do something spectacular to get in that conversation. But all the guys that made it were deserving. There were probably a couple snubs out there but it’s just an all-star game.” Evans has topped 1,000 yards in each of his first five seasons.

—Field Level Media

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