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OWINGS MILLS — Todd Heap used to spend hours studying how Tony Gonzalez was revolutionizing the tight end position, emulating his basketball-inspired athleticism. As a consensus All-American at Arizona State, Heap mirrored the body control, toughness over the middle, vertical capabilities and blocking techniques of the Kansas City Chiefs’ established star.
Now, the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ two-time Pro Bowl tight end is intent on matching and eventually surpassing Gonzalez’s production with a career track that is beginning to rival the seven-time Pro Bowl tight end.
Heading into Sundayâ€™s game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, Heap is the Ravensâ€™ leading receiver with 55 receptions for 564 yards and six touchdowns and ranks third among NFL tight ends in receptions.
â€œI think if youâ€™re a tight end, you are obviously going to watch the best guys and heâ€™s been one of those guys over the years,â€ Heap said of Gonzalez. â€œObviously in college, I watched him and I think even in the NFL, you watch guys around the league and say, â€˜OK, here are little things I can pick up from each guy that will help improve your own game.â€™
â€œHeâ€™s been good for a long time. Heâ€™s a consistent tight end and always makes plays. If youâ€™ve watched him over the years, heâ€™s one of the guys that finds a way to get open.â€
A similar statement could be made about Heap, the Ravensâ€™ all-time leading receiver with 298 receptions for 3,457 yards and 26 touchdowns in six seasons.
Gonzalez, who has 705 career catches for 8,538 yards and 61 touchdowns in 10 seasons, and Heap are the only tight ends that are the leading receivers in their respective franchisesâ€™ histories.
Particularly in the red zone, Heap has emerged as quarterback Steve McNairâ€™s chosen target the majority of the time.
Heâ€™s tied for second in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons’ Alge Crumpler among tight ends with seven receptions for 38 yards and five touchdowns in the red zone. Only New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey (eight receptions) has more receptions inside opponentsâ€™ 20-yard lines.
For his career, Heap has 21 red-zone catches for 129 yards and 16 touchdowns. Plus, 81 percent of his red-zone catches have produced either first downs or scores. Since Dec, 18, 2005, Heap and the Washington Redskinsâ€™ Chris Cooley have the most touchdown catches among tight ends with nine apiece.
Heap just seems to have an expert knack for finding the end zone.
â€œYou canâ€™t really explain that, you just have to know Todd,â€ McNair said. â€œHeâ€™s a guy that has so much ability, and he knows the game. When you have a guy like that who has the speed, the size and the agility to go against cornerbacks, not only linebackers and safeties, itâ€™s a plus for us.â€
Over the past five seasons, Heap ranks third in tight end production behind Gonzalez (371 catches, 4,580 yards and 31 touchdowns) and Shockey (298 catches, 3,493 yards and 23 touchdowns). Heap has 282 catches, 3,251 yards and 25 touchdowns following a rookie season that represented a one-year apprenticeship behind retired All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe.
This season, Gonzalez leads the Chiefs with 57 catches for 728 yards and five touchdowns, including two touchdowns in a loss last week to the Cleveland Browns.
â€œGonzalez is the best tight end in the league, second to Todd Heap, of course,â€ Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said with a smile. â€œHeâ€™s an athletic guy. Heâ€™s been proving that over and over, and heâ€™s the heartbeat of that team. Heâ€™s the soul. Heâ€™s been the one constant throughout the years.â€
Unlike Gonzalez, who played power forward with distinction for Cal-Berkeley in the NCAA tournament, Heap has a brief background for the Sun Devils.
Like Gonzalez, though, the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Heap represents a blend of size, speed, acrobatic leaping ability and sound hands.
â€œTheyâ€™re gifted athletes,â€ Billick said. â€œThe best tight ends in the world are all playing power forward in the NBA.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland