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The Competition: Tight Ends


Heading into the first practice of training camp, will offer previews of those positions that feature a tough competition, focusing on who will be fighting for playing time. Today, the tight ends take the spotlight.

The goal for the Ravens' tight ends corps is simple: get healthy, and stay healthy.

The team's top three players at the position, **Todd Heap****L.J. Smith** and **Quinn Sypniewski**, all missed significant time during mini-camps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs) due to various injuries. It has thus been difficult to evaluate the tight end competition, but hopefully that will change come Training Camp and the preseason.

Heap has been battling a back injury he sustained in the playoffs that has taken longer than anticipated to heal. Even before the injury though, the nine-year veteran saw a drop in production in 2008 despite starting all 16 games. The reductionwas largely because of increased time blocking for then rookie quarterback **Joe Flacco**.

"What we were able to do at tight end last year was nothing short of a miracle," said offensive coordinator **Cam Cameron**. "To ask Todd to play 70 plays a game, that's hard to do in this system, especially once you get past six or seven years in the league."

Still, with Flacco having a year under his belt and an improved offensive line with the addition of first-round pick **Michael Oher**, the Ravens would like to see more productivity from the two-time Pro Bowler.

"Our expectations for Todd are to be the player he has always been, and even better," said head coach **John Harbaugh** during OTAs. "All the things that he did last year sometimes get undersold, [like] all of the things in the blocking area, [but] we want to definitely expand him in the passing area. We want to control the middle of the field with our passing game, and Todd Heap has got to be a big part of that."

The expectations don't stop at Heap, however. The rest of the tight ends corps needs to step up in 2009 and have an active role in the offense.

Here is a breakdown at how the current tight end group stacks up based on last year's performance:

Todd Heap

2008:The fan favorite had a sub-par receiving season in 2008 with 35 receptions for 403 yards and three touchdowns, but played a much more active role in pass protection. His contributions in blocking helped give Flacco more time to throw, aiding in the rookie's development.

Forecast:Heap is determined to be ready for opening day of Training Camp on July 29, and even more determined to see the offense improve as a whole. With his quarterback poised to take the next step and the offensive line improved, Heap is in position to return to his pass-catching ways. But like everyone else on the roster, he has to stay healthy, which has been a concern throughout his career.

L.J. Smith

2008:Smith played 13 games for the Eagles last year, starting 12 of them. He hauled in 37 catches for 298 yards and 3 touchdowns. He was a solid contributor on a Philadelphia offense that ranked ninth in 2008 and reached the NFC Championship Game. Smith runs routes well, has good hands and gets in and out of breaks quickly, according to the Ravens' coaching staff.

Forecast:Smith will be expected to contribute as a compliment to Heap. Cameron has often utilized two tight end sets in the past, and the addition of Smith will allow for that formation, as well as provide quality depth. However, Smith's largest problem in Philadelphia was his inability to stay on the field because of injury. That's a bug he needs to avoid in 2009.

Quinn Sypniewski

2008:Sypniewski suffered a season-ending knee injury in April 2008, which required surgery to heal. A second surgery was necessary in order to reattach part of a bone to his knee, and he is, at best, questionable to return in time for training camp. The fourth-year player's biggest season came in 2007, when he stepped up for the injured Heap and Daniel Wilcox to play in 15 games, gaining 34 receptions, 246 yards and one touchdown.

Forecast:Sypniewski is a powerful blocker and his presence will be on the offensive line when he returns to the field. But he has to get on the field first. He may start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, which will allow him to miss the first six weeks of the season, but if he cannot make it back by then, he may have to finish a second consecutive season on Injured Reserve. That's a valuable roster spot Sypniewski would be using. He needs to prove he's worth it by getting healthy.

2008:Jones a former pass-rusher, converted to tight end early in the season, but still saw defensive game action. He played seven games on both sides of the ball, registered six special teams tackles, one solo tackle and half a sack. He also notched his first career reception for 25 yards in 2008.

Forecast:The Ravens love Jones' versatility, and he made progress during OTAs as he continues to adjust to the tight end position. He'll have to continue to develop as a tight end, both in pass-catching and blocking, throughout training camp and the preseason to secure a spot on the roster.His ability to play defense will be a real plus for the 6-foot-3, 283-pounder.

2008:The Penn State product signed on the practice squad midseason last year after a stint in Jacksonville in 2007, where he registered one catch for five yards. He signed a future/reserve contract shortly after the season ended, but left no notable impression during mini-camps or OTAs.

Forecast:With the likes of Heap, Smith, Jones and Sypniewski all on the roster, Smolko will likely be competing for a spot on the practice squad again in 2009. He will have to have a stellar performance in training camp just to have a shot at making the team.

2008:Drew's senior season at East Carolina University was his most productive in college, starting all 14 games. He notched 43 receptions for 695 yards, averaging 16.2 yards per catch, and was named to the All-Conference USA squad after being an honorable mention in 2007.

Forecast:It's too early to gauge how successful Drew will be in the NFL, but as a converted quarterback, the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder may be able to quickly get a feel for Cameron's offense. With Heap, Smith and Sypniewski all missing time, he's also seen increased reps, which will help his case. He showed strong athletic prowess during OTAs, and if he continues to do so during training camp, he could land an active role on special teams in 2009.

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