Ravens need to play it smart with Ed Reed

The Baltimore Ravens say they want Ed Reed back, and the nine-time Pro Bowl safety wants to return. Sounds like everyone should expect Reed to pick off passes for the Baltimore defense next season. But it's not that simple. In fact, it's rarely that simple when an aging all-time great reaches free agency.

The last time the Ravens faced a situation like this was 2009 with linebacker Ray Lewis. Baltimore let Lewis test the free-agent market, and he returned to the Ravens 20 days later. It was a smart move with Lewis, and it would be a smart move with Reed.

Given the Ravens' salary cap situation, which is about $11 million under, Baltimore has to take this calculated risk with Reed. Yes, he could end up in Indianapolis or New England, where he could wear matching hoodies with Bill Belichick. The Ravens can only make their best offer to Reed before free agency begins Tuesday and hopes he either accepts the deal or doesn't get a significantly better offer later. Baltimore was justified to overspend on Joe Flacco, a quarterback entering the prime of his career. The Ravens just can't do it with a 34-year-old safety, which would result in losing cap room to sign someone like linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.

This is a delicate situation. The key for the Ravens is not letting it become an emotional one. Reed is the third-best player in Ravens history behind Lewis and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and is one of the best to ever play safety in the NFL. The Ravens value Reed's leadership, perhaps even more since Lewis' retirement. Some teammates say Reed is a more influential leader than Lewis in recent years. The Ravens also respect how much Reed's presence alters an offense's game plan.

General manager Ozzie Newsome clearly would like to keep Reed. Based on his history, Newsome doesn't want a future Hall of Fame player to end his career elsewhere. Just look at Ogden and Lewis, who were both Ravens for life.

Newsome, though, is the architect of two Super Bowl champion teams because he usually makes the right choice on the tough calls. The Ravens can't invest a big signing bonus to a player who is no longer a consistent playmaker, struggles at tackling and contemplates retirement nearly every offseason (except his free-agent one, of course) because of a nerve impingement in his neck. There's a good chance that Reed isn't the Ravens' top priority in free agency, and that's even after signing Flacco. Baltimore has a bigger need at inside linebacker, which makes Ellerbe more valuable.

So far, the Ravens haven't shown any urgency with Reed. They decided against using the franchise tag on Reed, which would've kept him around one more year for $8.64 million. Team officials said they planned on talking to Reed a couple of weeks after the Super Bowl, but Reed told The NFL Network on Monday that he has yet to hear from the Ravens.

"Hopefully that call comes soon," Reed said.

This is what the Ravens are banking on. Newsome said a few days after the Super Bowl that "if you watched his body language over the course of the last eight to 10 days that he loves being here in Baltimore and I think we can use that to help make that relationship last a little bit longer."

Reed maintains his intention is to remain in Baltimore, telling the NFL Network this week, "I am a Raven, plan on being a Raven. I couldn’t see myself anywhere else. But if it happens, I am a football player. I can adapt to any situation.”

This sounds like if things are close contract-wise, Reed prefers to remain in Baltimore. The problem for the Ravens is they won't be able to match a sizable offer made to Reed. The Patriots are $25 million under the salary cap and the Colts have $44 million in cap space.

Why are those two teams most heavily linked to Reed? Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano recruited Reed to play college football at Miami, and Belichick has made his fondness for Reed so well-known that Tom Brady joked the coach was going to adopt him and call him "Ed Belichick."

The length of the contract shouldn't be an issue. Reed is looking for a two- to three-year deal. The question is how much are teams willing to spend on him. Reed leads all active players with 61 interceptions, but he only has a total of seven the past two seasons. He is one of the most respected leaders in the locker room, but he's been far from a perfect teammate. He called out Flacco during the playoffs last season and skipped the mandatory minicamp last year. Reed is also a liability on running plays and runs after catches, missing 15 tackles last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

If the Ravens lose Reed, they can try to find a safety late in the first round just like they did with Reed in 2002. The top free safety prospect, Florida's Matt Elam, should be available at the No. 32 pick.

The Ravens' preference, however, is to bring back Reed. Baltimore watched Lewis have a storybook ending to his career, and the team would like to see Reed retire as a Raven as well. But, when it comes to one of the shrewdest football players of his generation, the Ravens have to be equally wise in dealing with him this offseason.

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