No longer stricken by the pain that had plagued his lower back since the playoffs and nearly sidelined him for the Ravens’ AFC championship loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Heap proclaimed Tuesday that he’s definitely going to be ready by training camp.
"I got some good work in, and I’m feeling better every day," said Heap, who characterized his back injury as a sprain. "It felt good. I ran some pretty good routes. I’ll be ready for camp."
Heap demonstrated that he’s approaching completely healthy status as he participated in full-team drills over the past few days during a passing camp at the Ravens’ training complex.
During a pass route Tuesday, Heap took a quick jab step to his left before cutting sharply to his right and catching a Joe Flacco pass in stride. He didn’t seem to have any discomfort.
"It’s something where there isn’t all that much pain, but it’s sometimes stiff," Heap said. "Sometimes, I feel like it’s loosened up and ready to go. It’s just a matter of getting back to normal and it’s getting there."
What’s still lacking, though, as Heap tries to regain his usual flexibility and strength is the trademark explosiveness that was on display for the majority of his career in Baltimore.
The acceleration might be the last thing to return.
When Heap caught the football, he was moving quickly. However, it didn’t look like he was opening up his stride as well as he once did in the open field.
As far as Heap is concerned, it’s only a matter of time and hard work before he’s back to his old Pro Bowl form.
"Yeah, I think that’s going to be the biggest thing," Heap said. "I’ve been doing a lot of stride work. I have to mix that with the explosion. That’s probably the last thing. I feel it coming back."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh is encouraged by Heap’s progress, also noting that he did more work Monday than he did Tuesday.
"Todd seems like he’s really coming along," Harbaugh said. "I think he was a little bit sore from the workload, but that’s a good sign because once you get to the point where the injury is not causing the soreness and the workload is causing the soreness, now you can start working your way toward where you need to be. So, significant progress."
Relegated primarily to a blocking role last season to shore up the pass blocking and ensure that quarterback Joe Flacco had adequate protection, Heap registered just 35 catches for 403 yards. It was his lowest statistical totals out of all of his seasons where he has started every game.
If Heap’s back cooperates, then the Ravens have plans to increase his presence in the passing game.
However, there has been a lot of speculation about whether Heap, 29, can truly reclaim his former role as a featured target and whether he has declined physically.
"Our expectations for Todd are to be the player he has always been, and even better," Harbaugh said. "I don’t think Todd looks back on his career and says, ‘OK, I made a Pro Bowl or two,’ and therefore that’s it, that defines a player. Todd is the kind of guy who’s looking forward to what he’s going to achieve for the rest of his career and immediately this year.
"I think he’s really, really motivated to have a great year individually and along with our offense. All the things that he did last year, sometimes gets undersold. 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."
As the franchise’s all-time receiving leader with 374 catches for 4,300 yards and 30 touchdowns, Heap has been ultra-productive in the past.
However, Heap has caught a total of just 58 passes for 642 yards and four touchdowns over the past two seasons after catching 73 passes for 765 yards and six touchdowns in 2006 and 75 passes for 855 yards and seven touchdowns in 2005.
Now, Heap is banking on his back not flaring up again.
"Last year was tough to play through it," Heap said. "It’s been a process of getting back to where I need to be. It’s almost there."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.