Tight end takes job one snap at a time

Veteran worried about losing spot playing 'like every day is my last'

Daniel Wilcox

August 20, 2008|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,Sun reporter

There was too much downtime in the offseason for Daniel Wilcox.

After he underwent surgery in January to repair his sprained left big toe, doctors ordered the Ravens tight end to stay off it for several months, adding that the healing process typically takes about a year.

Naturally, Wilcox was concerned that his toe might impede his return to the job he loves. Just as worrisome was whether there would be a job for him to return to.

"This is a scary league, where if you sit out for too long, somebody could come in and have your position in a matter of days or weeks," Wilcox said Monday after his first practice since being activated off the team's physically-unable-to-perform list. "It's not a lot of fun watching guys rotate in and out of your position and not knowing when you get back whether you're going to have an opportunity to get your job back or earn that respect back with a new coaching staff."

It's a frank statement that illustrates the roller-coaster life in the NFL. Players have said nothing compares to making a living on the stage of what some consider America's most popular sport, but there are no guarantees that the stage will always be open.

Wilcox is all too familiar with the whims of the NFL. In 2001, he was an undrafted rookie who found brief stays with the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers before latching on with the Ravens in 2004 and working himself into a spot behind two-time Pro Bowl selection Todd Heap on the depth chart.

"I've never had job security," Wilcox said. "I've been a free agent from Day One. So I've always had a free-agent mind-frame. I could be gone any day. That's why I've continued to play like every day is my last."

It's also part of the reason Wilcox - who was activated off the PUP list Friday - pushed himself to return to practice several months before the projected date given by his doctors.

With Heap sidelined for a week because of a right calf injury and Quinn Sypniewski lost for the season with a knee injury, the Ravens' tight ends through much of training camp were three journeymen in Adam Bergen, Aaron Walker and Keith Heinrich.

Wilcox - who has endured hamstring and ankle injuries, including sprained left and right ankles last season - said he was amazed at the toll the sprained big toe took on him.

"Without my toe, I can't run, I can't cut, I can't jump, I could barely walk," he said, adding that doctors had to repair the bone, muscle, ligaments and tendons in the toe. "Being in a boot and on crutches has definitely brought a different perspective to my life and what I want to do. This is something that could have ended my career. Prayerfully, it won't."

Tight ends coach Wade Harman said he has sensed an eagerness in Wilcox to get back to the field as soon as possible.

"Anytime you lose playing time to an injury and you've had some success and done some really good things on the field, I think there's motivation to get back on the field and show everybody that you're healthy," Harman said. "You want to contribute in any way that you can, and you don't feel good when you're not out there. He's a competitor."

Getting Wilcox back could be a boon for an offense still looking to find its way under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Wilcox, who has caught 71 passes for 557 yards and six touchdowns in four seasons with the Ravens, can catch passes at tight end or in the slot or open holes in the running game as a fullback.

Wilcox said he is still working on making the transition from studying the playbook to carrying out the plays as scripted. "I can study, study, study, but it's nothing compared to getting out there and having to make a decision in a split second and do the right thing every time," he said. "It has to become second nature to me."

Wilcox said he would like to play in the remaining two preseason games before the regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 7. But he said he won't press the issue until the coaching staff is fully comfortable with his progress.

"I don't feel like where I'm need to be," Wilcox said. "I've got a lot of learning to do, I've got a lot of running to do and a lot of cutting before I can declare myself to be in football shape and hitting shape. I haven't been hit since last December. So I feel like I'm miles behind everybody else. I've got a lot of catching up to do."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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