Calm Before the Storm: Heap Anxious for Opener

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Get back on the field.

As the 2008 campaign nears, that is what everyone wants. The fans want to see their favorite players back in action. The team wants to get back to work. And two-time Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap can't wait to jump into a new offense and put last year behind him.

But as his teammates take the field Thursday for their final preseason game, Heap will likely have to wait another week.

Just seven seasons into his NFL career, Heap has already become the Ravens' all-time leading receiver, grabbing 339 catches for 3,897 yards and 27 touchdowns, good for two Pro Bowl appearances. He is a fan favorite whose jersey ranks among the most popular with Ravens fans.

Last season, though, a hamstring injury sidelined Heap for all but six games. While Daniel Wilcox and Quinn Sypniewski performed well in his absence, the offense was not the same as it had been when the Ravens won 13 games in 2006. Without their reliable receiver, the team struggled to a 5-11 record.

"It was extremely tough knowing that maybe if I was out there, I could be a help to our team," Heap remembered. "It was the first time I'd ever dealt with a hamstring injury, and I learned a lot about what not to do. I just kept trying to come back too early, and probably didn't give it enough time to heal."

That memory has lingered as the team approaches the 2008 season.

With the hamstring fully healed and training camp underway, Heap was looking as strong as ever, gaining a ton of extra reps due to injuries to Wilcox (foot) and Sypniewski (knee).

But midway through the team's stay at McDaniel College, Heap was again sidelined, this time by a calf injury. It was not thought to be major, but after last season, Heap and the Ravens agreed that it would be best to play it safe.

"I'm trying not to make the same mistakes," Heap said. "Obviously the most important thing right now is the season. It's important to get reps in, as many as you can get in the preseason, but at the same time I'm trying to make sure that come the Cincinnati game, I'm full speed."

Few have doubted the All-Pro's ability to be physically ready for the season opener. But with the quarterback competition still brewing and a new offense being put in place by Cam Cameron, concerns have arisen about how sharp the offense will be when the regular season gets underway.

No one is more aware of this than Heap, who has spent the last several weeks studying the system and getting mental reps.

"With Cam Cameron's offense, you see the tight end in a lot of different places," he said of his new role. "I would be in the slot, split out wide, in the backfield, and then you have the regular tight end formations, so I'm definitely planning to be a big part of all those different aspects.

"When you're not in there, it's always good to get mental reps. You can learn a lot from sitting back there and trying to go through what you would do and how you would react."

Although Heap has dedicated himself to being prepared for the season, the coaching staff was not content to wait for him as they saw the tight end corps drop, one by one.

In an attempt to bolster the position, Adam Bergen and Keith Heinrich were added to the roster. Bergen in particular developed into one of camp's top surprises, showcasing sure hands that made him a favorite target of the Ravens' quarterbacks.

Still, depth was an issue, so as camp wound down, the Ravens coaching staff approached a promising young player with a proposition.

"The coaches came to me and asked if I could play tight end," former linebacker Edgar Jones recalled. "I told them that whatever it takes to help the team, I would do. I played tight end and wide receiver in high school, so this isn't the first time."

A versatile talent on defense, Jones proved to be just as quick a learner on the offensive side of the ball. Less than a week after taking on the tight end role, Jones appeared in last Saturday's game at St. Louis.

In addition to preparing himself, Todd Heap has worked to ensure that Jones would be as ready as he could be.

"This is really his first week or so of playing tight end," Heap commented. "Throwing Edgar in there at this point in the game, it's late, so we've got to make sure that he's up to speed with everything. It's fun working with him, because you see the wheels turning in his head. Hopefully things start slowing down for him soon so he can not think so much and just react and play."

As for Heap, he knows he will be ready to perform right away.

"I think it's going to be a fun year," he said. "Personally, I'm looking forward to a big year. There have been a few seasons where I've been injured, and I've always come back strong."

With just days remaining before the season officially gets underway, the fans of Baltimore are once again reminded that the waiting is the hardest part.

Todd Heap learned that the hard way last year, but his team hopes that patience this summer will bring about the return of a vintage No. 86.

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