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The Baltimore Sun

He is not usually the first tight end picked in fantasy football and is often an afterthought in conversations about who is the best, or even second best, at his position in the NFL. It is nothing new for the Ravens' Todd Heap.

Taken with the next-to-last pick in the first round of the 2001 draft, Heap has caught more balls than any other tight end in the past five years aside from the Kansas City Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez and the New York Giants' Jeremy Shockey

So why does it seem as if Heap, who has twice been selected to play in the Pro Bowl, doesn't generate the kind of attention outside the confines of M&T; Bank Stadium that seem to follow players such as Shockey and the Cleveland Browns' Kellen Winslow?

Heap might have great hands and a strong heart, but he doesn't have a big mouth.

"I think the people in the industry know how good he is," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He is not one to shoot his mouth off. That doesn't bring the attention to him that [it] might otherwise. But you've got to appreciate that as a coach and an organization."

Though many look at Heap being more of a throwback compared with some of his more glamorized counterparts, the man who often is credited as being the first of the modern-era tight ends sees similarities rather than differences.

"I think they're both big-time athletes," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said when asked recently about Heap and Winslow. "They both have very good body control. They both have great hands. They both run very well.

"The way you can use Todd, you can use Kellen or [the San Diego Chargers' Antonio] Gates or Shockey or [the Atlanta Falcons' Alge] Crumpler. How they're utilized is how much production you will get."

If Winslow recovers from the partially dislocated shoulder he suffered in the Browns' 26-24 loss at Oakland last Sunday, it should provide an interesting contrast when the Ravens play in Cleveland on Sunday. Not that Heap looks at himself as an old-school tight end, just one who plays within the structure of his team's offense.

"You've got to adjust and adapt, and you do what your team needs of you," Heap said last week after a practice in Owings Mills. "I always prided myself on being able to do both [catch and block]. You get here and you definitely want to be two-dimensional.

"I really don't put too much stock in the old school or new school."

Yet Heap definitely is asked to play the game differently from many tight ends, and he might be used this season in an even more old-fashioned role - as much to block as to catch - given the absence of perennial All-Pro Jonathan Ogden at left tackle.

"He's a complete tight end," said Billick, who played the position in college at Brigham Young and coached it on the college and professional levels. "He's not just a thoroughbred that's going to run and catch the ball."

Said wide receiver Derrick Mason: "What Todd brings more than any other tight end is that he has the knowledge of the game, his hands are so incredibly strong, he basically catches everything in his path. I haven't seen a tight end make the kind of catches he does, with traffic all around him, getting hit, going over guys, even Gates."

That was evident Sunday at M&T; Bank Stadium when Heap made a crucial 12-yard catch over the middle before taking the brunt of a vicious hit to the helmet by Arizona Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, resulting in a 15-yard penalty on Wilson, a mild concussion for Heap, and ultimately a game-winning 46-yard field goal by Matt Stover.

Coming up big

Why Heap is overshadowed by some of the league's other tight ends might also have to do with the Ravens' offense, a system built around the field position provided by the team's suffocating defense, a running game that once featured Jamal Lewis and now relies on Willis McGahee, and a lot of mid-range passes to Heap and a collection of wide receivers that now includes Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams.

Yet Heap has caught 331 passes over his career, including 15 this season, and has put together one solid season after another despite battling a string of nagging injuries as well as more serious ones that forced him to miss four games his rookie year and 10 more in 2004.

What's also impressive are the numbers he puts up considering how often Heap lines up adjacent to the offensive line rather than being "flexed out" as a slot receiver.

"Seven out of 10 snaps, you're going to see Todd lining up next to a tackle," Newsome said of a percentage that has been higher with Ogden sidelined the past two games.

Newsome became the prototype for the modern-era tight end after being converted from wide receiver during a minicamp before his rookie year with the Browns in 1978. He recalled how the position evolved over his 13-year Hall of Fame career.

"We were more wide receivers than we were offensive tackles," Newsome said of a group that included Oakland's Todd Christensen, San Diego's Kellen Winslow Sr. and ultimately Shannon Sharpe, who played most of his career for the Denver Broncos before finishing with the Ravens. "We were more the pass catcher rather than the point-of-attack guys. The guys before us were more point-of-attack guys than pass catchers."

The tight end's role changed also in relation to the size of the players.

"You can't ask guys who are athletic like that to block 280- or 290-pound defensive ends," Newsome said. "That's not going to happen play in and play out. My biggest job was to be able to tie up the guy just to give the five other offensive linemen a chance. Our running game wasn't going to be a success because I had to be a dominant run blocker."

Highly flexible

While the size, speed and athleticism of the tight end have changed the routes some of them are asked to run, the essential philosophy remains much the same as in Newsome's playing days.

"The game plan was tailored around us getting mismatches," Newsome said. "There's just more of them now."

Still, the tight end's role, more so than other receivers, is largely dependent on the offensive system a team runs. The Browns use Winslow more in the slot because their new offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, brought his system with him from San Diego after seeing the way the Chargers used Gates, a former college basketball player.

Though the Ravens' offense has opened up at times this season, it hasn't yet trickled down to Heap, whose 6-foot-5, 252-pound body is typical for a tight end these days.

Heap's versatility makes him a more difficult player to defend.

When Heap caught a 4-yard touchdown pass with one hand near the left sideline of the end zone against the New York Jets in Week 2, he was lined up as a wide receiver. There were even a couple of occasions against the Cardinals when Heap seemed to be the principal downfield receiver.

Ravens tight ends coach Wade Harman said: "He has the ability to do those things, not only physically, but we put in a lot of different personnel groups, he has the ability to understand and comprehend it, and not only be able to function, but function well at those positions."

Not going unnoticed

Heap said he understands that the way he is used in the game plan can change every week, and he acknowledges that playing for a run-first team didn't thrill him coming out of Arizona State. But he has adjusted well and has grown into the Ravens' steadiest receiver along with Mason.

Heap's talent as a blocker - something that he has developed since being drafted out of Arizona State - is often obscured.

"People don't appreciate it as much, but the guys that are watching film and have to pay attention to it. They know and see what's going on out there," said Heap, who smiles realizing even he doesn't remember some of the better blocks he threw. "I don't really think in those terms."

A little old school, don't you think?

don.markus@baltsun.com

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