Tight Ends Coming Back To Life

Everyone already knows what Todd Heap brings to the table for the Baltimore Ravens. The 6'5 tight end, who has the speed to separate past linebackers and safeties down the field, the hands and concentration to snatch most passes, and the fundamentally sound route running technique to break open from coverage, is a monster target in the Ravens' offense.

In fact, last season, he was the target for either Redman or Blake to rely on, because the wideouts performed so inconsistently. Heap, who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last year, faced double teams constantly, and still netted 800 yards receiving in his first full season as a starter.


Although many experts have deemed Jeremy Shockey, who is a great player in his own right, as the best tight end in the game, Heap is his equal.


While Shockey is better after the catch, with the ability to rumble through tackles; Heap is slightly faster and gets cleaner separation after running his deep routes. Shockey made more spectacular catches, while Heap was slightly more consistent catching the easy passes. Both don't quite resemble Howard Cross when they need to run block, but Heap bested Shockey in this category, showing solid technique and leverage to wall off opponents, which he did not show at Arizona State.


Both players are outstanding leapers who can position themselves to catch jump balls.


Clearly, the two players share similarities and differences, and anybody can legitimately make a case in favor of either guy. However, the one common aspect between Shockey and Heap is every general manager, coach and owner covets a tight end with their physical capabilities.


Shockey's impact on the game as a rookie last year was so profound that teams were combing the 2003 draft class in order to find the next great pass catching tight end that could revolutionize the position. Now, instead of devaluing the tight end, as teams had been doing to some degree after everyone strived to spread defenses out like the Rams did four years ago, the position has now become the flavor of the month.


Despite needing a defensive lineman or a linebacker to replace Mike Peterson, the Colts opted to use their first round choice to draft Dallas Clark, the top pass catching tight end out of the 2003 pool. He is no Shockey or Heap, but Clark is a solid receiver who has great hands, and will team up with Marcus Pollard, another top notch deep threat, to form a formidable duo.


The Eagles used their second round choice to acquire L.J. Smith, who in an intriguing player that scouts have labeled as the fastest tight end out of the class. Like Clark, Smith was drafted by Philadelphia to serve as a weapon who would compliment former Pro Bowl tight end Chad Lewis.


Both teams are clearly following the Giants' blue print last year of using more Ace packages (two tights, one back and two receivers) to create bigger mismatches against secondaries.


Whether Shockey served as a decoy in order to free up the rest of his teammates to make plays, or he was the main receiving option, New York was able to successfully throw all over solid pass defenses because even if defenders where able to anticipate whether the play was a run or pass (defenses often expect the run because the two tight ends are used as blockers), they were scrambling to figure out where the ball was going.


Not surprisingly, the G-men drafted another tight end this year named Vishante Shiancoe, to compliment Shockey. If Shiancoe, who is a bit of a project but has a nice combination of size, speed and athleticism, hones his receiving skills, the Giants' two tight end sets will become that much more difficult for defensive coordinators to deal with.


In Baltimore, Heap also has a lot of help. The Ravens have drafted two more tight ends besides Heap within the past two years: Terry Jones (fifth round) and Trent Smith (seventh round). Jones showed flashes last year, and is a classic run blocker who is tough to bring down in the open field. Conversely, Smith is the definition of a great receiving tight end that runs precise routes, catches the ball smoothly and can work the intermediate area.


The combination of Heap, Jones, John Jones and Smith arguably give the Ravens the deepest corps in the NFL. Although Heap is clearly the main cog out of the group, teams will have to think twice about doubling teaming him next season, unless they want to open up a Pandora's Box.


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