Months removed from his most productive football season ever, the Baltimore Ravens traded for former All-Pro quarterback Steve McNair.
It's not a well-kept secret in NFL circles how much McNair -- a former NFL Co-Most Valuable Player -- likes to throw to the tight end. Just ask retired tight end Frank Wycheck, a former Maryland standout who was one of McNair's favorite targets during his tenure with the Tennessee Titans.
"Todd Heap is going to love playing with Steve, and Steve is going to love throwing to Todd," Wycheck said in a telephone interview. "Yes, Steve has a tendency to look for the tight end and he's going to obviously look Todd's way a lot. I predict big numbers, especially since they have Derrick Mason to throw to and Jamal Lewis to run the football. It should be a balanced offense."
Despite erratic play under center last season divided between quarterbacks Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright, Heap managed to generate his best statistical season.
Last year, Heap caught 75 passes for 855 yards and seven touchdowns. He even emerged as the Ravens' all-time leading receiver with 243 career receptions and 2,983 yards.
Heap remains a major component of an offense that features McNair's experience at breaking down defenses to find Heap and the other receivers.
Everything seems to be setting up well for Heap and a Ravens offense that finished 24th in total offense last season.
"I've been watching Steve for a long time and you can see that he does like the tight end, but you can also see that he just goes through his progressions," Heap said. "It's not like he's looking for one guy out there. He's going to hit the open guy.
"That's really what we need to focus on: taking what the defense gives us, hitting the open guy. I think Steve is good at doing that. I see a lot of threats. I see a really balanced attack. I see a lot of guys making plays."
Besides Heap, McNair has several other options to deliver the football, including Mason and Mark Clayton along with a running game headlined by Lewis and Mike Anderson.
It's unlikely that the Ravens will finish 25th in scoring offense again as they did last season, although McNair has a learning curve after being acquired for a fourth-round draft pick and signed to a $32 million contract.
"Steve's been picking up on our offense really quick," Heap said. "It's good to see him getting on the same page and us getting on the same page with him. It's something we can build off of this early in camp."
Even though his body was dotted with fresh surgical scars after undergoing reconstructive ankle surgery in January and an April procedure to repair the labrum in his shoulder.
Now, his shoulder no longer clicks incessantly and his repaired ankle has granted him full permission to make sharp cuts and leap into the air for high passes.
"He had a great offseason," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's thought about nothing but getting ready for the season and that's a plus."
McNair isn't the only important figure in the Ravens' offense who favors the tight end.
Offensive coordinator Jim Fassel's resume is dotted with past success with tight ends, including Jeremy Shockey when he was the New York Giants' head coach and Shannon Sharpe, who registered career-high numbers when Fassel was the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator.
"No question, I love tight ends especially athletic ones like Todd," Fassel said. "You get great matchups because they can't cover the tight ends. It should open things up for Todd, Steve and all the receivers. I expect Todd to have a great season."
Entering his sixth season, Heap has been to the Pro Bowl twice. He signed the big contract last summer, receiving a six-year, $30 million contract extension that included $11 million in bonus money.
What's missing, though, is a Super Bowl ring like the one his older teammates earned in January of 2001 prior to Heap's rookie season.
"It goes by fast," Heap said. "You don't really get a taste of it, but you see what the atmosphere is like after a Super Bowl. You see the look on those guys' faces when you go back and watch their film of the year before.
"You get a lot of stories out of those guys talking about how you can't replace those experiences. It's something that I play for, that we all play for. That's what I'm here for, to win a Super Bowl. I think the excitement is building right now, and I definitely want to make a run this year."
Aaron Wilson writes for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.
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