Ed Reed has earned respect as one of the NFL's all-time greatest safeties

Tulane coach Curtis Johnson had known Ed Reed since he was a kid. And he knew what a special talent Reed was as a triple-threat quarterback/defensive back/kick returner at Destrehan High School in the mid-1990s.

But Johnson also had a problem when he came to try and recruit Reed to the University of Miami. The Hurricanes’ scholarships were limited because of partial probation, and Johnson and defensive backs coach Chuck Pagano were hoping to try to convince Reed to come to Miami on a track scholarship.

“Chuck’s brother, John Pagano, was with the Saints at the time (as a defensive assistant). So we went with him out to Destrehan, and we put on the film of Ed making play after play,” Johnson recalled. “And Chuck was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ So John goes, ‘I don’t know if he could play for you guys at the University of Miami. But he sure could start with us for the New Orleans Saints.’

“So that’s why we took him. Not because of Chuck Pagano, but because of John Pagano.”

Sixteen years later, Reed is still the kind of impact player the Saints could use in their secondary.

He’s 34 years old now, and he’s fighting through all the ailments that come with an 11-year career – a torn labrum suffered early this season, a painful nerve impingement that has nagged him for an estimated six or seven years, a series of concussions he’s endured.

And that little gray patch sprouting from his hair seems to be growing a little bit more each year – though Johnson said he’s always told Reed that’s a sign of “wisdom.”

Regardless, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer remains one of the most dangerous threats ever to roam the back end of a NFL defense. And he is still expected to be one of the biggest impact players on Sunday when his Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 2013 in his home turf of New Orleans.

 “Even though injuries have robbed him of some of his speed, and he’s been playing with a torn labrum, I still think he’s the best safety in the league as far as taking the football away,” said Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, who now works as an analyst for CBS. “I mean, the dude’s special. … This dude is unbelievable.

“I gave him the nickname, the ‘Ball Hawk.’ I’ve never seen a guy from that position be able to take the ball away like he has.”

Reed ranks 10th in NFL history with 61 career interceptions. And he ranks first in NFL history with 1,541 return yards.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees is one of Reed’s many victims. Brees is 0-3 in his career against Reed and the Ravens, and Reed picked him off in their early days when Brees was with the San Diego Chargers in 2003.

“You talk about one of the best safeties of all time,” Brees said. “He’s one of those guys that’s extremely smart. And just a football player. He’s a ball hawk. He’s always around the ball. When you play him, as the game goes on, you see him start to kind of dissect what’s happening. And you have to become even more careful as the game goes on as to where he is and the plays he’s trying to make.”

When asked if he had to try and change his routine or tendencies before facing Reed, Brees said, “Here’s the thing. On the chalkboard, certain coverages are supposed to look certain ways. But when Ed Reed’s back there, it doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to look like on the chalkboard. He’s gonna read your eyes, he’s gonna read formations, he’s gonna read splits, he’s gonna jump certain things.

“And you just gotta be aware of where he is, or he can make you pay.”

Reed was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He’s earned nine Pro Bowl selections. He’s been named first-team All-Pro five times and second-team All-Pro three times. He has scored 14 touchdowns in his career, and he’s the only player in NFL history to score off a punt return, a blocked punt, an interception and a fumble recovery.

All of those accomplishments made Reed an easy choice for our list of the top-10 NFL players from the New Orleans area.

He probably belongs in the top three or four, along with quarterback Peyton Manning and Hall of Fame running backs Steve Van Buren and Marshall Faulk -- whom Johnson also recruited when he was with San Diego State.

“I was fortunate to be around two of them. And those two guys, Ed and Marshall were very similar in how smart they are. Exceptionally smart. … (Reed) is probably one of the smartest players I’ve been around, him and Drew Brees,” said Johnson, who appreciates better than most how many great players – and great defensive backs, in particular – have sprouted from the New Orleans area.

Another one of them, Aeneas Williams, is up for Hall of Fame induction this weekend. And another, 15-year NFL veteran Lionel Washington, is now serving as Johnson’s co-defensive coordinator at Tulane.

Reed rattled off a number of attributes that make Reed stand out – from his smarts to his skills to his competitive drive. He said he used to play basketball with Reed a lot, and he acted like Michael Jordan on the court. Always willing to take the final shot, always wanting to lock down the other team’s best player on defense.

Johnson said Reed was also the classic guy who would “make his teammates better.” He remembers him driving another all-time NFL great safety Sean Taylor to be the best he could be at Miami. And Reed has even given Johnson pointers over the years.

They were just in Johnson’s office recently, with Reed explaining to Johnson how he would always just follow Saints receiver Marques Colston, because he knew that’s where the Saints would go eventually.

Former Saints safety Darren Sharper said Reed gave him similar pointers before the Saints played in the Super Bowl against Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. And sure enough, Reed was spot-on with predicting some of Manning’s tendencies – including the quick slant to Reggie Wayne that was intercepted by Saints cornerback Tracy Porter to seal the victory.

But as smart and well-prepared as Reed is, his instincts are even better.

Sharper, who ranks two interceptions ahead of Reed on the all-time NFL list with 63, said he’s always been a fan of Reed because they play with that same “riverboat gambler” style.

“I love watching him play,” said Sharper, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network. “I see what he’s seeing -- knowing how to take proper angles. Anticipation. Not being afraid to take a chance.

“He definitely takes calculated risks. And I can appreciate that as someone who likes to play the game that way.”

Reed’s pro coaches speak about Reed with the same reverence as Johnson does. Both current Ravens coach John Harbaugh and former Ravens coach Brian Billick said that while it’s understandable that veteran linebacker Ray Lewis is getting so much attention leading up to his final game, Reed is a similar type of player and leader.

Harbaugh called Reed a “staple,” "a spiritual and emotional leader” and “a huge part of what we do” this week, raving about what he’s meant to the Baltimore community off the field as well as what he’s meant on the field.

Billick, who now works as an analyst for the NFL Network and FOX, said Reed has “an incredible, unique perspective on the game. He’s Ray Lewis-like in his emotion, his passion and intelligence for the game.”

And when asked for his memories of Reed, Billick laughed.

“How many times where you’re looking up and you’re going, ‘What the hell are you doing there? Oh great, you intercepted the ball! Go!’” said Billick. “Just his ability to come out of the structure of the defense and make plays is second to none.”

Reed is scheduled to be a free agent after this season, and he said he intends to keep playing. But the Saints aren’t a very realistic destination since they have limited cap space to work with and so many holes to fill on a defense that needs to be rebuilt.

And the Saints would hardly be the only team interested in his services. There’s already buzz building that the New England Patriots will make a run at Reed since coach Bill Belichick has always been so gushing with his praise for Reed.

When Belichick was asked before the AFC championship game what he admires so much about Reed, he said, “It’s everything.”

“He just does things that nobody else at that position does, or I don’t know if they’ve ever done it,” Belichick said. “He’s special. He’s really special.”

That’s as true today as it was 16 years ago.

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