OWINGS MILLS -- Todd Heap accelerated into his pattern, dashing past linebackers and safeties incapable of matching his speed.
Looking back for a high spiral from quarterback Steve McNair, the Baltimore Ravens' tight end leapt into the air and extended both arms for a classic over-the-middle reception.
Two aspects of the difficult feat Heap rendered routine at the Ravens' minicamp in June resonated.
One, there was a relative ease at which Heap planted his cleats and cut, further proof that his ankle and foot injuries of the past remain in the past. Two, there wasn't even a wince or other evidence of any strain from his surgically-repaired shoulder.
Unlike the past few years, Heap enters training camp at McDaniel College completely healthy without having had to undergo offseason surgery or rehabilitation procedures.
"This is the first time in a couple of years that I've felt this good," Heap said prior to the Ravens wrapping up their offseason practice drills. "I'm a lot further ahead than where we were the last few years, and that just makes me a little more excited for the season."
Heap isn't alone in that sentiment as his teammates and coaches have noticed a difference in the prolific tight end.
The Ravens' all-time leading receiver with 316 receptions, 3,658 yards and 26 touchdowns, Heap is a two-time Pro Bowl selection. A year ago, he led Baltimore with 73 receptions and six touchdowns while ranking second with 765 receiving yards.
There's a strong sense at One Winning Drive, the Owings Mills address for the Ravens' training complex, that much more could be in the offing from Heap, barring any injury setbacks.
"I think he's one of the best tight ends in the league," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's excited about spending an entire offseason, coming out of what we did and knowing the ways we were able to highlight him last season, of basically just getting ready for the season and not rehabbing. He's in a very good place right now."
That's true in terms of his health and his personal statistics.
Over the past five seasons, Heap ranks third among all NFL tight ends with 3,452 yards and 300 receptions.
Only the Kansas City Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez (387 catches, 4,752 yards) and the New York Giants' Jeremy Shockey (314 catches, 3,609 yards) have surpassed him for catches and yards.
With 25 touchdowns, Heap ranks just ahead of Shockey's 24 and behind the San Diego Chargers' Antonio Gates' 34 and Gonzalez' 31.
"All of the other personal things, stats or whatever, those will come and will be all fine and good as long as we're winning," said Heap, whose steady production has dwarfed former Ravens wide receiver Travis Taylor's No. 2 franchise-ranking totals of 204 catches, 2,758 yards and 16 touchdowns. "I'm not too worried about that. I want to win games and go to the Super Bowl."
Just like the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Heap, all of his elite tight end brethren combine several traits: athleticism, hands, size, speed and body control.
Traditionally, modern NFL offenses thrive when their tight end creates several mismatches with slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs. That's a large portion of how the Ravens' offense is set up.
"The standard tight end has kind of gone out of the window," Heap said. "It's a more versatile position now. Every team is looking for somebody that can bring a little more versatility to the table.
"The tight end has become more of a threat. You have to account for where he is on the field, as a deep threat, in motion, all over the place. One thing that hasn't changed is tight ends still need to be able to block. When you watch the good ones, they can do both."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
Heap outlook looks bright
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