Former Ravens Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap was only a day or so into training camp of his rookie season when he got his first “Welcome to the NFL” moment.
Fortunately it came in practice when teammate and defensive end Rob Burnett didn’t have his game face on.
“I didn’t have a lot of time and Rob Burnett had some of the quickest hands I had ever seen,” said Heap, the No. 31 overall pick in the 2001 draft. “I went out to block him and he grabbed my arm and elbow. He didn’t snap my arm, but he could have.
“He just gave it back to me and said, ‘You’re going to need that arm for the rest of this season.’ He was suggesting to me that the little things make a difference in playing the game on this level.”
The point was well taken.
Heap, now 38, went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL, finishing with 499 receptions for 5,869 yards and 42 touchdowns. He made the AFC Pro Bowl squad after the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
He has a special interest in watching his old team this season because the Ravens selected not only South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst in the first round of the 2018 draft, but also Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews in the third.
A lot of people were surprised, but not Heap.
“They’ve taken two before with Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson in 2010. I found it strange then, but not anymore,” Heap said. “I feel like they have a need at tight in the offense right now, and they appear to have gotten two good ones.
“We will see over the next couple of months, but I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far.”
Both have excellent credentials. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Hurst had 44 catches for 559 yards and two touchdowns last season, and was rated by several draft experts as the top tight end in the draft.
The 6-5, 254-pound Andrews had 62 receptions for 958 yards and eight touchdowns for the Sooners in 2017 and was considered to be one of the best catching tight ends in college football.
Like the Ravens, Heap is excited about the possibilities.
“Offenses have evolved to the point where tight ends have become the main focus,” Heap said. “I have always thought we were some of the lowest-paid guys and at some point we needed to break that mold. Tight ends can create some of the greatest mismatches from the middle of the field to the red zone.
“Do you put a linebacker on him or a safety? You can put the tight end inside, outside or in the slot, but regardless they put a lot of stress on a defense because offenses have become so multiple.”
But before they get to that point, Hurst and Andrews have to survive training camp, which begins in about a month. Granted, current camps are not as rigorous as those in previous decades, but they aren’t easy either.
It’s more about mental fatigue than physical exhaustion. With college players, especially those taken in the early rounds, their bodies really haven’t had long periods to rest since they began preparing for the 2017 season.
Once that’s over, they play in various bowl games and then begin preparations for the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February. Then it’s on to the draft and the various minicamps up until training camp.
“From the time I left college I tried to add 15 pounds to prepare for the combine,” Heap said. “There were so many more aspects to prepare for than your usual training. You have to be concerned with a meal plan, the 40 time and all the various types of testing.
“When you get to the various camps and training camp, you don’t know what to expect. You’re playing in a different offense, the caliber of play is better, so you’re just trying to get through it day to day. There is a different layer under the microscope now and you have to make adjustments quickly.”
Heap said he was lucky. His mentor in Baltimore was Shannon Sharpe, an eventual Hall of Fame tight end. Sharpe was undersized but part of the new wave of talent at the position, which seemed to be part receiver, part tight end.
According to Heap, he learned how to block from Sharpe because he positioned himself so quickly with his feet and hand placement.
“Shannon was an undersized tight end and had to be perfect in things because of the size disadvantage,” Heap said. “Most tight ends are going to be overpowered by the guys they are playing against because those ends and tackles are bigger and stronger.
“From my first year until the 12th, there were different aspects of what I did on the field which were exactly what Shannon did. My route running was different than Shannon’s because I learned that from Brandon Stokley. He could drop his weight at the top of his route like few others.”
In other words, Heap is recommending Hurst and Andrews attach themselves to veteran players and ask questions. Not a few, but many.
In the NFL, every player has talent. But the good and great ones often separate themselves because they perfect the little things that others overlook.
Also, Heap believes both should enjoy the moments. Heap remembers being called by Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome after the team drafted him, followed by conversations with then-head coach Brian Billick and late owner Art Modell.
The call from Newsome is one of his greatest memories.
“I’m not a super-anxious person, but I was on that day,” Heap said. “Looking back, I don’t know why I put that type of pressure on myself because it was out of my control. I didn’t think Baltimore was that interested in me, but I remember being so elated because the call came from Oz, and he was one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game. That was really special.
“If I had to offer any advice, I’d say don’t worry about the off-the-field stuff. All the other stuff, all the other preparations are behind you. There is going to be some new stuff and that can cause some anxiety. But you can’t worry about that. Now, it’s time to just put your head down and go to work.”