Heap has lofty designs at Pro Bowl

Amid the azure sky, pristine beaches, aqua waves and tropical tranquility of Hawaii, another piece of calm is present. Whenever Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap launches himself above the secondary on a football field, he's usually able to generate enough relaxation to isolate his focus on one single thing: making the reception.

"I love being in that position where it's just me and another guy, a jump ball, and let's see who wants it more," Heap said. "I feel like I've got a right to the football."

 As much for his penchant for circus catches as his sculpted 6-foot-5, 252-pounds and uncommon acceleration, Heap was selected to today's Pro Bowl as a reserve for the AFC squad, where he's joined by Baltimore offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and outside linebacker Peter Boulware.

It's only Heap's second season, his first as the Ravens' anointed successor to the departed Shannon Sharpe after a one-year apprenticeship. Talking on a cell phone after practice earlier this week at Aloha Stadium, Heap sounded genuinely surprised at his fast ascension.

"It's pretty unbelievable and really a blessing to be here," said Heap, who led the Ravens with 68 receptions to go along with 836 yards and six touchdown catches. "It was a situation where I was trying to make the most of the opportunity as soon as Shannon went back to Denver. It was all about, ‘How would I handle it, how hard would I work?'

"I've been working hard all my life to be in this position. I haven't forgotten that. You have to keep it all in perspective, but, definitely, it takes a lot of faith to be out there on the field because it can all end in a heartbeat."

Sharpe has already predicted that Heap will eventually own his all-time statistical marks for a tight end. Judging from initial production and not having played with a quarterback anywhere near the quality of retired Denver Broncos legend John Elway, whom Sharpe caught the majority of his passes from, Heap appears to be well on his way to accomplishing that feat.

Many times last fall, Heap was granted the compliment of double-coverage, even commanding the attention of opponents' top cornerbacks. He was often used as an extra wide receiver and said that scenario could unfold today depending on what Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon has in mind.

Heap claims he always believed that he would make it back to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. As a collegian at Arizona State, he started in two Aloha Bowls and said he told the Islanders he met that they would be seeing him again with a colorful lei around his neck.

 Joined by his wife, Ashley, his six-month-old daughter, assorted family members and his Ravens tight ends coach Wade Harman, Heap dubbed this week as the ultimate working vacation.

"I feel real bad for you all back in Baltimore," Heap quipped. "How's the weather? It's beautiful here. I've been to the beach already to watch a surfing competition. It's unbelievable the athletes that get on those boards.

"They come down on those 30-foot waves straight downhill at a vertical drop at full speed. I don't know if I'm going to do anything like that this week. I've done that before, and been snorkeling. I'm just relaxing for now."

So, are the Ravens about the strength of their tight end position. They foresee Heap occupying the spot for years to come.

At age 22, Heap was often mistaken for an oversized wideout as he began a practice last season of lining up at multiple spots and running his patterns as adeptly as much smaller men.

"The big thing with Todd coming out was, ‘Could he be a point of attack guy or just be a move guy?'" Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "His blocking has been outstanding. He's as complete a tight end as there is in the league, albeit a young one."

Running a corner route in a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, Heap had one yard to go for a touchdown. Stretching out for a high pass, Heap managed to daintily touch both feet inside the back of the end zone for the score.

Later on, he caught a waggle pass after separating from the linebackers and safeties. He agilely eluded defenders to find the end zone again, avoiding Jaguars cornerback Fernando Bryant in the open field to complete a 20-yard touchdown.

"When we spread Todd out wide, it's like having an extra receiver and we get some mismatches," quarterback Chris Redman said. "Obviously, a tight end who can run and has hands like that is going to rate very high. Todd is a great athlete making some unbelievable catches."

Heap was selected with the 31st overall pick of the NFL Draft two years ago and has justified the Ravens' faith. When the Ravens chose the Sun Devils' career leader for receptions (115) and yardage (1,685) by a tight end, they had a definite plan in mind: for Heap to supplant Sharpe when the salary-cap bill became due one year later.

"Todd's a big receiver just like we had with Shannon because he can move around, not just at tight end," running back Jamal Lewis said. "He can get downfield and make big plays."

Unfortunately for the Ravens, due to constant instability at quarterback, which is still a shaky situation with veteran Jeff Blake an unrestricted free agent and Redman coming off back surgery, Heap hasn't been fully utilized to this point. The Ravens went 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in two seasons.

"I think we played really well this year," said Heap, who noted seeing Redman last week in California and reports him in improving health. "Considering what we went through in losing so many key players last off-season, we really overcame a lot of obstacles and adversity. We gained confidence and built chemistry.

"I think we're in a great position to make a run next year. I expect big things."

While the Pro Bowl is obviously a laidback atmosphere marked this year by players bowing out due to minor injuries and several of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers skipping mandatory workouts, Heap said he's determined to win the game.

He's motivated beyond the $30,000 check that goes to members of the winning team as opposed to the $15,000 for the losers.

"You want to showcase what you can do for your team," Heap said. "It's definitely a game you want to win. You don't want to come all this way just to lose."


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