Heap looks ready to fill Sharpe's shoes

<p>Inside the nuances of a solitary play, Todd Heap put on an advanced clinic at how to play tight end. <p>During the Baltimore Ravens' passing camps, Heap continued to lend assurance, not pause to the coaches and executives counting on him to replace All-Pro Shannon Sharpe after a one-year apprenticeship.

As soon as quarterback Chris Redman barked out the cadence for the football to be snapped, the athletic 6-foot-5, 252-pounder accelerated out of his stance to achieve a clean release off the line.

There was little interference from the defense on this May morning as the 31st overall selection in last year's NFL Draft quickly broke into an opening in the secondary as Redman's primary read.

When the spiral sailed a tad high, Heap leapt into the air and stretched his hands high above his helmet for the catch long before safeties Ed Reed and Anthony Mitchell could react.

Crisp route. Pristine catch. And a dash into the end zone that's becoming customary for a young player on the rise.

"You don't expect a tight end to be that fast unless it's Shannon Sharpe," Mitchell said of Heap, who caught 16 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown in 12 games last season. "Todd Heap has nice speed and routes. Any safety checking him had better scout him good.

"Shannon Sharpe had that veteran technique. Todd has the young legs. The ball touches his hands and it's caught. Just like glue."

The scene of Heap, 22, creating a mismatch with defensive backs through his uncommon size and speed is one that the Ravens hope becomes repetitive. He's the anointed successor to Sharpe, a salary-cap casualty who returned to the Denver Broncos.

And Heap's development is critical for a team that ranked 16th in the NFL in passing offense before losing Sharpe's 73 receptions for 811 yards and two touchdowns.

"I'm making big steps," said Heap, who caught 115 passes at Arizona State for 1,685 yards and 10 touchdowns. "Shannon is a fun guy to be around and he gave me a lot of insight, but I'm ready to step in and make a name for myself.

"I'm at the point where I have a year under my belt and I know the offense. It's a matter of time and hard work for me to be successful."

Although Sharpe didn't require much assistance and the prescribed plan was to groom Heap for this season, it was still time well-spent. Heap caught five passes for 57 yards in his professional debut against the Chicago Bears, adding three receptions for 39 yards in a November win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"Todd had a beneficial year," said George Kokinis, the Ravens' assistant director of pro personnel. "He got enough reps to show enough development that it wasn't a wasted year."

Heap has restructured some of his weight from a year ago to account for the added blocking responsibilities he'll have as the Ravens' starting tight end.  He appears to have put on some additional muscle after spending the majority of the off-season training on the ASU campus with St. Louis Rams safety Adam Archuleta, a renowned exercise fiend and former Sun Devil.

Heap said he can cover 40 yards in 4.5 to 4.6 seconds, times that seem credible based on the way he ran his routes during the minicamps.

"With his speed and hands, Todd is like a younger Shannon Sharpe," receiver Brandon Stokley said. "He was always good, and he's taken his game to that next level.

"You can see his maturity and improvement. No more Shannon, so he's got to be the guy."

Last season, Heap started six games in double tight end sets, missing some time after injuring his ankle in September against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Adjusting to the aggressive nature of the NFL was a major adjustment for Heap.

"I learned it's a physical game, and you really have to be prepared for that every Sunday," Heap said. "You have no time to stop and rest. You just keep going."

 With the loss of leading receiver Qadry Ismail and the unsettled status of a young corp of wideouts led by Travis Taylor, Heap may represent the surest bet to become a steady target for Redman, a new starter.

Young quarterbacks tend to look downfield first to large targets like Heap before venturing outside. Redman has already shown a propensity for throwing the ball toward Heap.

The Ravens may even employ some motion gambits for Heap as well as flexing him out wide to allow him to get right into his patterns.

"That should be fun," he said. "You get a cleaner release."

At Arizona State, Heap wasn't asked to block much because he was setting the Sun Devils' career records for catches by a tight end.

In his final season in Tempe, Heap caught 48 passes for 644 yards and three touchdowns after catching 55 passes for 832 yards and three scores as a sophomore. He was an All-Pac 10 selection in both his sophomore and junior seasons before leaving school early.

Going all the way back to his days as a Super Prep All-American at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Ariz., Heap has been productive, setting school records for career receptions (87) and career receiving yards (1,377).

A year ago, Ravens senior vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end, was clearly thrilled at drafting a player skilled enough to play briefly for the Sun Devils' basketball team. Heap was also daring enough to enjoy cliff diving, boding well for dangerous work across the middle of the field.

Newsome said Heap brings back personal memories of his time starring for the Cleveland Browns.

"He's not as fast, but he's a lot bigger," Newsome said. "He does play the position the same way I played the position."

Comparisons to Sharpe are inevitable, but the Ravens aren't tempering their praise of Heap.

"Todd's going to be the man," Mitchell said. "Ozzie knew what he was doing with that pick."

 

 


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