Analysis: Could Ed Reed help the Pats?

When news broke out of Houston that the Texans had parted ways with safety Ed Reed and that Reed has cleared waivers, immediate reaction turned to what’s next for the future Hall of Famer.

Colleague Mike Reiss examined whether Reed fit with the Patriots Tuesday, and we wanted to add to the discussion with a look at Reed’s game tape from his brief tenure in Houston.

Had a team claimed Reed on waivers, his price tag for the rest of 2013 essentially would have been $1,673,500.

Because Reed went unclaimed, he is now a free agent and can sign with any team of his choosing, presuming there are suitors. He’ll be likely to earn close to a minimum salary deal with little guaranteed money, par for the course for free agents that are signed at this juncture of the season.

As far as the tape goes, below is our evaluation of Reed’s play in 2013.

• Alignment. Reed played a true safety position for the Texans, aligning to the weak side of the offensive formation (away from the tight end) and typically in a deep shell (close to 15 yards off the ball). Reed and strong safety Danieal Manning would often flip-flop sides of the field based on shifting and motioning by the opponent.

• Strengths. What is important to decipher is this: Which traits that made Reed such a terrific player for so many years have carried over to the present day? And which ones have faded? Reed remains an exceptionally instinctive player who can pattern read from multiple receiver sets to either side of the formation. He diagnoses passes and running plays effectively, evidenced by the first few steps he takes as the ball is snapped. As a tackler, Reed is a low, wrap-up tackler that aims for an opponent’s bottom half. Though not a powerful drive-through tackler, he has long arms and has showed consistent technique this season.

• Limitations. Simply put, Reed’s eyes move faster than his legs. At 35, Reed does not have the speed and functional mobility he had during the prime years of his career. Where this limitation shows up most is on downfield throws on which he needs to drift from his center field alignment to provide aid over the top to a cornerback. With 8:43 left in the first quarter of a Week 6 matchup against the Rams, Reed dropped into center field and scanned what was in front of him. He quickly diagnosed a throw down the sideline to his left, which required Reed to open his hips and sprint to provide help to the cornerback in coverage, who had been beat. Reed wasn’t able to close the gap, and though the pass was incomplete, the cornerback was forced to interfere with the receiver and prevent a touchdown. Getting to the sideline on these types of plays is an area in which we’ve seen Patriots safety Devin McCourty thrive this season, much like Reed used to as well. As Father Time catches up to him, Reed now struggles to accomplish that task like he used to.

• What’s TBD. One area that we don’t have an answer on based on 2013 film is how Reed’s ball skills look these days. He didn’t break up any passes this season (that’s tied to his mobility), but he was once among the best in the NFL as it relates to handling the football (he was a punt returner for many years for Baltimore) and intercepting passes. Ball skills and catching skills tend not to fade, and presumably Reed would make the most of his chances if he can get to the spot needed to make a play.

• Projecting a Patriots role. Say Reed were to become a Patriot, how might he be used? There’s no way to say definitively, but based on his tape from this season, he’s better off in a spot different than how he was used in Houston. The Patriots have their free safety in McCourty, though they do play some half-field safety responsibilities, meaning there are times when the strong safety will have to handle free-safety chores. For Reed, though not a heavy-framed player, he has the tackling willingness and instincts to handle some of the duties Steve Gregory has manned this season. With Gregory possibly missing upcoming games due to a broken thumb, the Patriots could have a void to fill. In-house options to replace Gregory include safety Duron Harmon, who has an interception in each of his past two games. Gregory’s injury doesn’t appear to be a long-term one, so the expectation is he’ll be back in a few weeks, if not sooner.

• The verdict. Would an investment in Reed be worth it? He’s best suited to play a situational defensive role and provide veteran leadership and wisdom to a secondary that features five first- or second-year players. Claiming Reed and having to pay the near $1.7 million for this season seems too rich for a part-time contributor, but if he were to clear waivers, the move would have some merit. The money would not be onerous, and Bill Belichick’s admiration for Reed’s game has long been clear. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia don’t need Reed to play an every-down role and are a creative duo that could maximize his strengths. With that in mind, if signed on a free-agent contract, Reed would be a worthwhile Patriots investment in my view.