'Top free safety in the game'

WESTMINSTER -- Ed Reed is consumed with the rich details of football, watching hours of film until he has memorized everything from quarterbacks' cadence to receivers' body language. The game-changing Baltimore Ravens safety's bank account is the furthest thing from his mind as he sweats through practice before 4,490 people Monday morning in Westminster.

Reed insists that he hasn't changed as a person since signing a seven-year, $40 million contract extension this summer that included $15 million in guaranteed money.

"Money don't define me," said Reed, who grew up in a blue-collar background in suburban New Orleans as the son of a ship welder. "It never did. It never will. I'm a football player and I go ahead with that.

"We need certain things to survive. That's just something that added more to me. It's a blessing, first and foremost. I thank the Ravens for that."

Now that the financial aspect of pro football is behind Reed, who's under contract through 2012, he has unfinished business on the field.

Specifically, Reed, 27, is looking to regain his NFL Defensive Player of the Year form following a career-worst season affected by a severe ankle injury that kept him out for six weeks.

When Reed returned last December, he didn't resemble the safety who set a franchise record with nine interceptions in 2004, including a league-record 106-yard interception return.

His hands appeared rusty, dropping several potential interceptions. His reactions weren't nearly as decisive. Plus, offenses specifically schemed of ways to avoid his territory.

Consequently, Reed finished with a career-low one interception, 40 tackles and 12 pass deflections as Baltimore skidded to a 6-10 campaign and the bottom of the AFC North division.

"It was a learning experience," Reed said. "Very frustrating, but you live and you learn. When I got back, I was ready to go. It wasn't hesitation. I think everybody was more focused on my ankle, too, so I think that played a part.

"I'm not changing my game or nothing. I'm just more aware that they are looking at me now more than anything."

That scrutiny is unlikely to go away, which raises the ante for Reed in terms of disguising his intentions. It hasn't escaped his notice how much respect he's being paid.

"More than anything, I think the coordinators are telling the quarterbacks to find out where he is and make sure you're not going to that spot," Reed said.

Entering his fifth season, it only took Reed four years to intercept 22 passes for the most in franchise history.

Twice, he's been named to the Pro Bowl since Baltimore drafted him in the first round in 2002. And the former University of Miami star has deflected 61 passes, leading Baltimore in that category in 2003 and 2004.

With his contract addressed, Reed enters this season with no potential distractions.

"Ed has never shied away from a leadership role, contract or no contract, but he's obviously got less on his mind now than he might otherwise have had," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

Despite Reed's statement that he hasn't changed, his teammates have noticed an evolution.

"I've seen changes in him not just this year, but the past two years," running back Jamal Lewis said. "He wants to be a great player, a Hall of Fame type player, and I think he's on his way. It shows in his work ethic and how he tries to go out there and be a leader on the field."

Reed's game is based around gambling, instincts and reactions.

He regularly jumps routes to pick the football off by baiting a quarterback into thinking he's going to be elsewhere. Or he'll anticipate the snap count on a blitz, waiting until the last possible instant to accelerate past the line of scrimmage.

For veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason, watching Reed is akin to a time warp back to the Ravens' Super Bowl defense that featured former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro cornerback Rod Woodson as a ball-hawking safety.

"He reminds me of Rod Woodson because he's so smart and knows how to read the defense," Mason said. "Playing against Rod for a long time, he lost a step, but was still smart enough to play because of that knowledge.

"Ed is one of those athletes that is smart. With that smartness and athleticism, he's the top free safety in the league."

The Ravens' investment in Reed practically shouts that they not only regard him as the best at his position, but also as one of the impact defenders in the league.

Essentially, owner Steve Bisciotti, without verbalizing this publicly, made a statement that Reed represents not only the present and future of the defense, but also the entire franchise. Reed is slated to make base salaries of $585,000 this year, $595,000 in 2007, $605,000 in 2008, $3.6 million in 2009, $6 million in 2010, $6.5 million in 2011 and $7.2 million in 2012.

Although Reed's credentials are firmly established, he doesn't act like a player who's inclined to no longer burn the midnight oil. Along with middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Reed is considered the most devoted player on the team in terms of studying film to gain an edge over opponents.

"Not yet," Reed replied when asked if he has mastered the safety position. "I still think I got a long way to go."

Aaron Wilson writes for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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