INDIANAPOLIS — — 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.
Thomas intercepted eight passes last season. Cyprien was a Senior Bowl standout who has cornerback skills in a safety's body.
"There's a strong safety class," Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery said. "In our minds, there are five or six starters in this class at safety and that's rare to me."
As far as Elam is concerned, though, he's the best. NFL teams might disagree, though, and so would Vaccaro.
"I'm very confident in myself," he said. "I feel that I can do a lot of things for teams: special teams, covering, tackling."
Swearinger has played every position in the secondary for the Gamecocks, lining up everywhere from cornerback, free safety, strong safety and nickel back. The 5-10, 208-pound player runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds.
"I have great ball skills," Swearinger said. "I'm not only just a safety. I'm an athlete. I want to be a ball-hawk. I just want to make plays. A lot of teams said they like my aggressiveness."
Swearinger has been linked to the Ravens in a few mock drafts and has already had one informal meeting with them and a formal interview scheduled for Monday.
Swearinger grew up watching Lewis and Reed confound offenses, and would ideally like to join the Super Bowl champions.
"I see myself fitting right in with the Ravens," Swearinger said. "Losing a leader like Ray Lewis, I consider myself a leader first and foremost. So, I think I would go right in to being a defensive leader."
Regardless of what part of the country they hail from, studying Reed is something these safeties all have in common.
Especially how he intercepted 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl.
"Ed Reed is definitely one guy that I do watch a lot," Jefferson said. "It's his instincts. You watch the Super Bowl. A critical play of the game is when he's in man-to-man and he comes off and gets Kaepernick to throw the ball."
Just like his competitors, Jefferson is aware of the potential job vacancy in the deep middle portion of the Ravens' secondary.
"That'd be a beautiful place to be," Jefferson said. "Super Bowl champs, you know what I mean?"