As if he were going up for another acrobatic catch, Todd Heap leapt over the competition again yesterday.
The two-time Pro Bowl player agreed to a six-year contract extension with the Ravens that makes him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history.
This landmark deal - whose total worth of $30 million includes an $11 million signing bonus - keeps Heap, 25, from becoming a free agent at the end of the season and locks him up through the 2011 season.
"You put your money where your mouth is," coach Brian Billick said. "You can talk the rhetoric, but when it comes time for a player's situation to be addressed, you step up and make him the highest-paid tight end in the league. He's deserving of that."
Heap's extension will pay him $14.8 million over the first three years and places him in an elite group. Not only does the deal surpass that of the Cleveland Browns' Kellen Winslow for the richest deal for a tight end (six years, $29 million with a $10.8 bonus) but it also ranks among the top 15 receiver contracts of all time.
"I was surprised that it got done as quickly as it did," Heap said in a conference call from Arizona, where he is continuing to rehabilitate his surgically repaired ankle and shoulder.
With the emergence of Heap, the Kansas City Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez and New York Giants' Jeremy Shockey, the value of tight ends has escalated rapidly.
Gonzalez set the standard with his extension in 2002, getting $31 million over seven years with a $10 million signing bonus. The previous high for an NFL tight end signing bonus had been $4.6 million to the Indianapolis Colts' Marcus Pollard in 2001.
Heap has become the prototype for this new generation of tight ends who are their teams' primary targets. He is too big (6 feet 5, 252 pounds) for a cornerback to stop and too fast for a linebacker to cover.
Ravens officials used this agreement to point out how they routinely reward their top-performing players who have a year left on their contracts.
It is believed running back Jamal Lewis is next to receive an extension, with defensive end Tony Weaver to follow. Safety Ed Reed, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, likely will have to wait because he has two years remaining on his deal.
"This team is committed to spend every penny of the cap that we can," Billick said. "[But] there's pacing to it, and there's no avoiding it. They will get theirs in the same time sequence that Todd got his."
Heap, who fell to the Ravens with the 31st pick of the 2001 draft, clearly had outplayed his contract. He was the Ravens' leading receiver in 2002 and 2003, earning Pro Bowl trips both times.
His production dropped last season, when he missed 10 games with a severe ankle injury. Still, Heap ranked fourth on the team in catches (27) and second in touchdown receptions (three).
"He is one of the elite playmakers in this league," quarterback Kyle Boller said. "He not only makes me better but our entire offense that much better."
Heap's current focus is getting his ankle and shoulder better. The Ravens still expect him to be ready by the regular season, but he could be held out of training camp and half of the preseason.
"I'm putting the hours and effort in to be ready as soon as possible," Heap said.
This agreement proved the Ravens weren't scared off by Heap's health, but that doesn't mean they aren't concerned that his body could break down from all those leaping catches.
Billick said he has advised Heap not to put himself at risk when catching the ball, telling him: "One, it doesn't work. Two, it looks really, really bad and you get hurt. So don't do it anymore."
There was no such flash involved in Heap's celebration of his new deal. He took his wife and 2-year-old daughter to Peter Piper Pizza.
"To be able to stay here for nearly the rest of my career is exciting," Heap said.
NOTE: Nickel back Deion Sanders, who missed the first day of minicamp, returned.