Veteran free safety Ed Reed has been a constant presence in the NFL for nearly a dozen years, instinctively patrolling the Ravens' secondary and baiting quarterbacks into miscues.

Although he's not here at the NFL scouting combine, Reed's name was frequently mentioned by younger safeties that admire him and attempt to emulate his passionate brand of football.

"No doubt, I try to mold my game after him," said Texas standout Kenny Vaccaro, who's regarded as the top prospect in a deep safety class. "He's a Hall of Famer, and he's a ball-hawk. All young safeties watch Ed Reed."

Florida junior safety Matt Elam has always envisioned himself playing like Reed.

He'd love to pattern his game after how Reed pounces on errant throws and delivers punishing tackles.

"He'll hit you, he'll pick the ball off, ball hawk," Elam said of Reed. "He can do it all, so I feel like I can do it, too."

Elam is the younger brother of Arizona Cardinals safety Abram Elam. When asked if his brother might get upset that he's trying to mirror Reed instead of him, Elam replied: "I don't think he'll mind. He understands."

That's how much Reed's cerebral, free-wheeling style resonates with the safeties that grew up watching him.

Reed, 34, is approaching a career crossroads now that his six-year, $44.5 million contract has expired and he's set to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.

Reed has declared that he intends to continue playing, and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has expressed optimism that the nine-time Pro Bowl selection will ultimately remain with the team. However, the Ravens' tight salary cap could prevent the Louisiana native from finishing his career in Baltimore.

Reed could also be in demand from coaches who respect and know him, such as the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Indianapolis Colts' Chuck Pagano.

"It's hard to imagine a Ravens defense without Ed Reed," said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former Ravens director of player personnel who was working for Baltimore when the Ravens drafted Reed in the first round of the 2002 NFL draft. "He's a fixture with the Ravens, just like Ray Lewis. It would definitely be strange to see him playing in a different uniform, but nothing lasts forever in the NFL.

"Ideally when you're replacing a player at any position, you have a year or so where you bring in a young player and they learn from the veteran. Maybe that's what could happen with the Ravens and Ed this year, but it's definitely a good group of safeties for them to look at."

If Reed's final game with the Ravens does wind up being their dramatic Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans, executives, coaches and scouts are plotting contingency plans in case he doesn't return.

The Ravens have met or are scheduled to meet with most of the best safeties that have assembled here to audition for the NFL. That includes Vaccaro, Elam, South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger, Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson and many others.

Elam doesn't rank far behind Vaccaro on most NFL teams' draft boards, according to analysts.

In three seasons for the Gators, the stocky 5-foot-10, 202-pound player finished with 176 tackles, six interceptions, three forced fumbles and 19 pass deflections.

Although Elam is regarded as a big-time hitter who might start out at strong safety as he transitions to the NFL, the All-Southeastern Conference selection believes he has the cover skills to play either spot. In the NFL now, many schemes call for the safeties to be interchangeable.

"I play very hard, and I like to strike people," Elam said. "I feel that's what helps me stand out the most, but I'm very versatile. I can cover slot receivers. I can go down and cover. I can go in the box and tackle."

Other safeties getting high marks from NFL teams: LSU's Eric Reid, Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien, Fresno State's Phillip Thomas and Georgia's Baccari Rambo.