When Terry Jones Jr. joined the Baltimore Ravens in 2002 as a fifth-round draft pick from Alabama, he was a tight end who wasn't a very accomplished receiver. He wanted to become a more complete tight end, so he latched on to Todd Heap.

Heap was only a second-year pro himself at that point -- but his first season was spent learning from one of the greats, Shannon Sharpe.

"I've seen Shannon Sharpe over the years, just watching him on television, and the way he runs his routes. Todd Heap's got a little bit of that in him," Jones said. "Me and Todd sit there and watch film [of Sharpe], and somehow Shannon Sharpe gets open every time, whenever he wants. Both of us are fascinated how he does that. I just try to learn that. The best way I can learn from Shannon Sharpe is to learn from Todd Heap."

Heap enters his fourth season in the NFL as one of the league's premier tight ends. He has led the Ravens in receiving and been to the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons, during which time he ranks second in the NFL among tight ends in receptions (125) and receiving yards (1,529). He ranks ahead of Sharpe and the New York Giants' Jeremy Shockey, and just behind Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez.

"He's my backbone," second-year quarterback Kyle Boller said of the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Heap. "I'm able to -- anywhere on the field -- see a matchup and throw the ball to him. If it's anywhere in his wingspan, he'll go get it. He makes my life easy."

The Ravens expect much of the same from Heap this season. Wade Harman, the Ravens' tight ends coach, has noticed one improvement in Heap during this week's mandatory minicamp.

"It's kind of crazy to say, but it looks to me like he's a little quicker," Harman said. "Maybe it's the experience, knowing that he's really settled in at what he's doing. . . . He's got the speed and ability, but sometimes you're not sure and you don't use the speed that you have. It seems to me that he's starting to play faster."

Heap was drafted with the final pick of the first round in 2001 (No. 31 overall) and spent his first season as an understudy to Sharpe. The quiet rookie followed the chatty veteran everywhere and soaked up everything Sharpe said or did, from how to eat right, to how to handle himself in the locker room, to how to study film.

"We would watch a lot of film, and [Sharpe would] always have little insights," Heap said. "He wouldn't always talk about the major things that Coach Harman would tell us. It was things like, 'Watch how this guy is playing you: Watch his hips, watch his feet, watch his eyes. See how he's going to play you when they play this certain defense.' "

About the only thing that Heap didn't pick up from Sharpe was the latter's chattiness. Heap is pleasant, thoughtful and well-spoken -- but he's not the colorful Sharpe, and he never swears.

"It's hard to get Todd to talk a lot," said Jones, who has the locker next to Heap's. That statement has never applied to Sharpe, who recently retired and joined CBS as a studio analyst. Now Heap finds himself in the role of the veteran. It's a role he can handle; even as a rookie, he had a quiet maturity. His offseason activities have helped him mature.

Heap is one of the more active Ravens in the community, and has taken a special interest in volunteering for USO activities. (Both of his grandfathers, Theo Heap and Alton Riggs, fought in World War II, and Heap grew up hearing stories about their service.) A year ago, Heap was one of seven Ravens who visited injured military personnel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This year, he spent four days in early May visiting American servicemen and women at military bases in Germany as part of a tour with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

An experience "like that does make you mature," Heap said. "It just kind of opens your eyes; you can't be so naive about things. I think I'm a young guy -- I'm 24 years old -- and you see all these guys who are over there, fighting for us, and they're 18 to 22. That was humbling to me."

Now, Heap is back, trying to prepare for the season. He has the most experience of the five tight ends who are participating in minicamp, and Harman often uses Heap as the example.

"The young guys look to him," Harman said. "I've got great tapes of Shannon, but now I've got great tapes of Todd's. We try to use everything we can so we can get better."