Heap on comeback trail

OWINGS MILLS -- It was a virtual football clinic with Todd Heap acting as the professor. Instead of a chalkboard and pointer, his instruments were his sharp routes and sound hands.

During a series of minicamps, the Baltimore Ravens' two-time Pro Bowl tight end repeatedly sprinted past defenders to gather in touchdown passes as he used his athleticism and size to full advantage.

It was a rare occurrence when Heap didn't create enough separation to make himself a prime downfield target.

Most importantly, there were no twinges of pain in Heap's left leg following a torn hamstring last season that limited him to six games and landed him on injured reserve.

"I'm feeling all right, I'm feeling good at this point," Heap said. "I'm getting close, but I have some time and I have been putting in a ton of work this offseason. It's been good.

"I've seen the benefits, but coming off that hamstring last year, I knew I had a long offseason ahead of me. I was so frustrated after this past year trying to get on the field, but my hamstring wouldn't allow it."

Instead of returning to his home in Arizona like previous offseasons, Heap haunted the Ravens' training complex in a concentrated effort to strengthen his legs and improve his flexibility and core muscles.

It was a grueling regimen, one that Heap is hoping will allow him to resume his role as the Ravens' most dangerous receiving threat.

Months removed from his most frustrating season, Heap and the Ravens are wary of any recurring injuries.

Especially after a season where Heap, 28, generated just 23 catches for 239 yards and a touchdown. It was his worst season statistically since the rookie year for the Ravens' all-time leading receiver with 339 career receptions, 3,897 yards and 27 touchdowns.

"It's been good to see Todd's progress," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He had the hamstring, and early on he was unable to do anything, and he's out here running around. He'll tell me, 'Coach, you haven't seen anything yet.' So, I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of it."

Heap has played in 16 games in four out of his seven seasons, but has developed a reputation for being somewhat injury-prone. He missed 10 games due to injuries in 2004.

It's absolutely vital that Heap remain healthy this year.

Blocking tight end Quinn Sypniewski, who filled in admirably last season, is out for the season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament when he banged into linebacker Antwan Barnes.

Backup tight end Daniel Wilcox is recovering from offseason toe surgery with a goal of being ready for the launch of training camp. And Lee Vickers missed most of the minicamps with a hand injury.

Plus, undrafted rookie tight end Scott Kuhn suffered a major knee injury during a minicamp and isn't expected to play this year. The Ravens have experimented with several players at tight end, including outside linebacker Edgar Jones.

"The biggest plus is now we've got Todd Heap healthy," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said.

Cameron has big plans for Heap, including schemes that split out the 6-foot-5, 252-pounder at wide receiver to try to create mismatches against smaller defensive backs.

Although the quarterback situation is in flux, whoever is throwing the football figures to be targeting Heap on a regular basis. Especially with Cameron's extensive background with the tight end position.

Cameron helped San Diego Chargers star Antonio Gates emerge as a vaunted tight end. Gates has caught 340 passes for 4,362 yards and 43 touchdowns in five seasons.

"Cam thinks using your playmakers is important, and we've got to find a way to get everybody the ball," Heap said. "You can tell from his past offenses that the kind of things he does with the tight end can be very big."

Before the Ravens can execute grand designs of a monster season for Heap, he has to absorb a complicated offense along with the rest of his teammates. That includes no-huddle looks and a lot of motion.

"It still is a lot to learn, but I'm trying to pick it up as quickly as I can," Heap said. "I've lined up most places on the field in my career, but to come in and learn a totally new offense, from the bottom, from the beginning, it's been fun, and I have enjoyed it.

"You're playing in the NFL. You can't get overwhelmed by the offensive playbook. The best thing you can do is to learn it, study it and, once you get on the practice field, just let it fly. Don't worry, don't hold it back."

During a 5-11 season last year where he was unable to contribute, Heap's emotions underwent a slow boil as Baltimore endured a franchise-record nine-game losing streak.

Now, he's healthy and intent on becoming an agent of change as the Ravens try to turn it around.

"Everybody has got something to prove, everybody in this locker room, every coach," Heap said. "I missed quite a few games last year. I've got something to prove this year. That's the mentality you have to take into it."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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