Healthy again, Heap excited about new season

OWINGS MILLS -- A year ago, Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap's body was dotted with fresh surgical scars after undergoing reconstructive ankle surgery in January and an April procedure to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.

His shoulder no longer clicks incessantly like a damaged engine that won't start.

His repaired ankle has granted him full permission to make sharp cuts and leap into the air for the football without feeling like it's going to collapse under his weight.

Time was a precious commodity in an accelerated, dual rehabilitation. The two-time Pro Bowl selection missed an entire training camp, and worried whether he would be ready for the season.

"It was a battle the whole offseason," said Heap, the Ravens' all-time leading receiver with 243 receptions and 2,983 yards. "I wasn't even positive I was going to be on the field, let alone be out there rolling for the first game.

"It was something I had never experienced before in my career since I first started playing football. There was so much uncertainty with everything."

Now, Heap's situation represents the polar opposite from last year. He's been able to participate in everything: the Ravens' offseason program along with his normally grueling weightlifting and running regimen in Arizona.
He's also celebrating the birth of twin sons. The Heaps already have a 3-year-old daughter.

Minutes after completing an organized team activity practice (formerly known as passing camp), Heap is feeling so good that he's actually joking about a minor cut on his ankle incurred by an encounter with defensive end Jarret Johnson's cleats.

"Can you believe it went all the way through the tape?" Heap said, pointing out a spot of blood. "Jarret must be sharpening those things."

Despite his injuries and incumbent quarterback Kyle Boller missing half of last season, Heap produced his top season.

He caught a career-high 75 passes, third among NFL tight ends behind Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez. His 855 receiving yards and seven touchdowns also eclipsed his previous career-highs.

"I had my best year statistically, but there were a lot of things I can still improve on," said Heap, a 2001 first-round draft pick from Arizona State. "This offseason has been a lot more fun. I've been able to go through all the physical aspects of running, lifting weights, running hills, all the stuff I didn't get to last offseason. I feel like I'm going to be a lot further ahead."

Heap has continued to work out with a physical therapist in Arizona to rehab his ankle and shoulder even though it isn't required. He doesn't want to take any chances.

"I've made a lot of gains," said Heap, who has caught 20 career touchdown passes. "It's night and day compared to last year."

That's the same sort of dramatic change Heap is hoping for after enduring a 6-10 campaign last year that extended the Ravens' streak of absences from the playoffs to two seasons.

Last year definitely left a bad taste in Heap's mouth.

"When you go through a season where the expectations are so high and you don't meet them, you have to look within yourself to see what you have to do to make changes," Heap said. "We're out here working hard to try to get into a rhythm."

Heap has been catching passes from Boller -- a close friend -- for three seasons, but he's obviously aware of the Ravens' aggressive pursuit of Tennessee Titans veteran quarterback Steve McNair.

Baltimore has reportedly agreed to the framework of a contract with McNair that would pay him $12 million in the first year, but has been unable to strike a trade with Titans officials. Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome declined to raise his offer of a fifth-round draft pick to the fourth-round selection requested during the draft by Titans general manager Floyd Reese, and talks haven't been revisited.

If the fluid McNair situation is affecting Boller's mindset, then Heap said he hasn't noticed.

"Kyle looks fine, like he's ready to start the season," Heap said. "I imagine with all the speculation going on that it's tough on him. Despite all that, he's been focused out there. I don't think anyone can tell any difference in his focus with the way he's been practicing."

Ultimately, whether it's McNair or Boller under center, Heap is confident that the passing game is going to improve significantly. This will be the second season with Heap working in tandem with wide receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton.

"There's no question we have the talent to be successful, it's just a matter of doing it in games because that's the bottom line," Heap said. "There's no reason why we can't have a successful offense and be more of a help to our defense."

NOTES: Former All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, who's recovering from hamstring surgery and created a stir with his complaints about the defensive scheme and personnel prior to the draft, attended the voluntary workouts this week. … Although contract proposals have been exchanged with team officials for a extension for safety Ed Reed, no deal is imminent, according to his agent, Gene Mato. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is entering the final season of his rookie contract and is slated to make $1.983 million in 2006, according to NFL Players Association figures.

Aaron Wilson writes for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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