OWINGS MILLS — The lingering pain in L.J. Smith’s abdomen was finally beginning to subside as the Baltimore Ravens concluded their minicamps last month.
The veteran tight end was able to participate in some individual drills after undergoing a minor surgery this offseason to follow up on his sports hernia procedure from a few years ago. He ran routes and didn’t appear to be in any visible discomfort.
After experiencing a rough patch of injuries during the past few seasons that affected his career prospects, the former Philadelphia Eagles starter is optimistic that touchdowns and path-clearing blocks will soon be attached to his name again rather than a litany of medical terminology.
"Yeah, that’s a big thing for me," said Smith, who signed a one-year, $1.5 million, prove-it contract this spring. "I’ve been looking forward to being healthy for a while now. I’ve been working hard to get my body right to come into camp in shape. I hate to miss anything.
"Over the past few years, I’ve been dealing with these injuries and I’m just trying to shake them. These past two years have been horrible for that. I can’t wait to get my body right, and then I’ll be good. Then, I can get back to my old self again."
Last season, Smith was sidelined for two games over the final month of the season because of a shoulder problem. Two years ago, Smith was out for six games due to the sports hernia.
Consequently, Smith’s production suffered along with his status as one of the league’s more prolific pass-catching tight ends a few years back.
Over the past two seasons, Smith was limited to just 59 receptions for 534 yards and two touchdowns.
He had combined for 111 receptions, 1,293 yards and eight touchdowns in 2005 and 2006, including a career-high 61 catches for 682 yards and three touchdowns four years ago.
Since former Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap has been dealing with multiple injuries, including a lingering back problem, that plagued him last season, the Ravens are hoping that the tandem of Heap and Smith will preserve each veteran’s health.
"Right, and I think that’s the important thing," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said during a minicamp. "We need depth. Last year, what we were able to do at tight end was nothing short of a miracle. To ask Todd to play 70 plays a game, that’s hard to do in this system. Especially once you get past six or seven years in the league. Now, we’re trying to build some depth.
"We’re getting some guys back, not as many guys are practicing right now as we would like, but we’re getting some work done. I think that’s the important thing. As long as we can get some work done, get our tight end group full speed by training camp, or, otherwise, we’ll be playing tackles at tight end again, or be going four or five wide receivers, which we’ll do."
Last season, Heap was relegated to blocking duty most of the time. He was typically deployed at the line of scrimmage to help protect quarterback Joe Flacco.
At times, Heap became a fixture lined up next to right offensive tackle Willie Anderson. Anderson retired this spring and is expected to be replaced by first-round draft pick Michael Oher.
Heap wound up catching only 35 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns, his lowest catch total of his career out of all of the seasons where he has started every contest.
With Smith now in the equation, the Ravens could utilize some double tight end formations and have an additional option for Flacco to throw to in the red zone and on intermediate routes.
"With Dan Wilcox not being back, L.J. has been huge," Heap said. "I am excited to see how he comes along. I have watched him over the years, and he is a great player. We’re definitely going to work well together, and I’m excited about it.”
For his six-year career, the former second-round draft pick from Rutgers has caught 231 passes for 2,525 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Now, it’s matter of Smith regaining his old form as the Ravens are in need at the position. The 6-foot-3, 258-pounder is also bringing a competitive streak to camp.
"It could be a very nice tight end corps, but someone has to be the guy," said Smith’s whose full name is John Smith III with his initials standing for Little John. "That’s what camp is for. I think guys will find their roles."
NOTE: Oher remained unsigned and in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., as of Sunday night with rookies, quarterbacks and selected veterans scheduled to report to training camp today in Westminster.
"Michael’s still here," Oher’s adopted father, Sean Tuohy, said in a telephone interview. "He’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen him. It’s been hot down here and Michael said, ‘I’ve been getting a leg up on the people in Baltimore.’ He’s excited. He’s so pumped up. He can’t wait to get there and play. I think everything is going fine as far as the contract."
Oher was drafted with the 23rd overall pick of the first round. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, last year’s pick at Oher’s slot, signed a five-year, $12.55 million contract that included $7.125 million in guaranteed money.
Meanwhile, second-round defensive end-outside linebacker Paul Kruger signed his four-year, $3.25 million contract that included a $1 million signing bonus as part of a total of $1.5 million in guaranteed money. Kruger agreed to terms Saturday night.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.