Message boards, Facebook walls and Twitter feeds continue to send out comments mourning the departure of the franchise’s longest-tenured tight end.
Fans are certainly entitled some time to grieve, particularly after watching Heap sign a two-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals, finalizing the sober fact that Heap is a Raven nevermore.
But with an opening week matchup with the hated Pittsburgh Steelers only a month away, it’s time to look toward the future.
The Ravens certainly have.
Last year, Baltimore drafted two talented tight ends in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Both entered training camp a year ago knowing the battle was for second string. This season, however, the starting spot is up for grabs.
“It’s a big deal,” Pitta said. “Obviously everyone wants to be a start in this league and that’s my goal and I know it’s everybody’s goal, so I’m working and preparing myself to do so.”
For Pitta, the Ravens’ fourth-round draft pick out of BYU in 2010, last season translated into a small taste of game action, but a heavy dose of life in the pros. With Heap sidelined for three games, time became available for both Dickson and Pitta, yet it was Dickson who found himself seeing substantial time and the numbers to show for it.
In 15 games, including three starts, Dickson tallied 152 yards and a touchdown, while Pitta earned one reception in 11 appearances. Despite the numbers, the battle for one of the team’s most valuable positions is up in the air and one head coach John Harbaugh knows is going to require somebody to step in and step up.
“We’ve got to have a starting tight end and a backup tight end,” Harbaugh said, “and the fact is Todd leaves us a void so that’s the way it works. It’s the next man up, you’ve heard it before. We think we have young talent and we drafted those guys for a reason.”
So far in training camp, Pitta and Dickson have put their talent on display, both with the receiving and blocking aspects of the position. During practice Wednesday, Pitta secured most of the offerings sent to him from quarterbacks Joe Flacco and rookie Tyrod Taylor.
Dickson, meanwhile, made a nice behind-the-shoulder grab from Flacco before bursting down the middle of the field, much to the chagrin of his defensive teammates on the sidelines.
No matter for either young tight end, however. With both expected to flourish on the roster, any big plays made simply serve as motivation for the other.
“There’s a lot of that but that’s just the nature of the sport and you’ve got to be competitive and you’ve got to want to one-up the next guy,” Pitta said. “If he makes a good play that makes you that much hungrier to go out and make a good play yourself.”
That’s good news for the man who spends nearly every minute of each practice with the duo. Over the past several seasons, tight ends coach Wade Harman has had Heap as his top guy on the roster, particularly last year when Dickson and Pitta - both rookies - could turn to Heap for tutelage.
Now, it’s up to Harman to bring out the best in all of his tight ends and with a starting spot currently blank, Harman doesn’t have to do much to get his guys motivated to compete.
“The things we knew about them when we drafted them is that they’re both good receiving guys,” Harman said. “And I think everything we see out there, we’re confident that that is showing. They’re doing well, catching the ball and they’re very willing, very smart guys and they’re doing a nice job of picking up what we’re doing and when we have things for them. They’re definitely showing their athletic ability when they get open.”
It may still be difficult for some fans to accept the fact that No. 86 won’t be running out of the tunnel on gamedays (at least not with the name “Heap” on the back). But fans shouldn’t find it too hard to embrace what the Ravens have in store for the future at the tight end position, no matter who ends up in the starting role.
“Certainly with Todd gone there’s a lot of opportunities for one of us tight ends to step up and fill those shoes,” Pitta said. “Obviously we all probably fit in somewhere in this offense but it’s about competing and about who emerges at the best spot.”