Ravens' Heap brings healthy expectations

Tight end excited about working with McNair

August 03, 2006|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Everything about Todd Heap is bigger this year.

His upper body. His expectations. Even his smile.

That's what happens when a player goes from not being able to run at last year's training camp to now running with a former NFL Most Valuable Player.

Just midway through the first full week of Ravens camp, there has been an instant connection made between Heap and new quarterback Steve McNair, which could translate into a career year for the two-time Pro Bowl tight end.

"There's not really a lot of words that can express how excited I am," Heap said. "We're both learning, but it's fun to start to get on the same page this quick. We've got a lot we can build off of."

A year removed from shoulder and reconstructive ankle surgeries, Heap doesn't resemble the tight end who was sidelined for all of last year's camp.

He looks smooth and strong in clicking with McNair, whose path he previously crossed at the 2003 Pro Bowl. Over the nine full-team practices, it has seemed as if nearly half of McNair's throws in camp have gone in Heap's direction.

"Right now, he's been hitting Todd like he's been playing with him for the past nine years," said receiver Derrick Mason, who is entering his ninth season with McNair.

It's no secret that McNair loves his tight ends.

In McNair's first four seasons as the Tennessee Oilers/Titans' starter (1997-2000), the leading receiver was tight end Frank Wycheck, who was named to three Pro Bowls during that stretch.

Wycheck was one of the most durable and consistent targets during that time, but Heap is considered one of the league's top playmakers, whose size and speed constantly create mismatches.

"Heap has a little more athleticism than Frank," McNair said with a chuckle. "But they're both smart. That's what it takes in this league, to not only have the skill but the knack to get open."

Heap's expectations have changed radically since last year.

After ankle surgery in January 2005 and a shoulder operation in April that year, Heap wasn't predicting how many catches he would make in the regular season.

"Last year at this point, I wondered if I was even going to play in the regular season," Heap said. "There were still a lot of aches and pains. I wasn't sure how [the shoulder] would respond."

Heap responded well with a career-high 75 catches and seven touchdowns.

But it was more of a struggle than many people realized. Heap was never close to normal and wouldn't know the condition of his ankle and shoulder until game day, when he would inform tight ends coach Wade Harman whether they were good or bad.

"But there were only two or three games when I said I was OK," Heap said. "Most of the season, it was a constant battle with the ankle and the shoulder."

This past offseason was more typical for Heap.

Because he couldn't run or lift last year, his body fat was about 3 or 4 percent higher than it had been. By getting back to his normal routine, Heap has been able to add more muscle.

"I'm feeling pretty close to 100 percent," Heap said, "and I'm sure I'll be there by the opening game."

Heap, though, sounds just as excited about the condition of the Ravens' offense as his own.

Since he became a starter in 2002, he has averaged 57 receptions, but the Ravens' passing attack has never finished higher than 22nd. It has been an increasing strain on Heap, who held hopes of the offense breaking though every year but only came away with more frustration.

Still, with the addition of McNair and a healthy Heap, the Ravens could have a viable offense that has been sorely lacking for years.

"I really hate commenting on that, because we've been talking about that for the last five years I've been here," Heap said. "I'll comment on that when we actually do that on the field. We do have the talent. It's just a matter of going out and getting the job done."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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