OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Ed Reed is expected to get voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot on Saturday, an honor that feels like a mere formality now but one that few could have predicted when the nine-time Pro Bowl safety entered the NFL.
The headline in The Baltimore Sun when Reed was drafted: "Reed: Solid, not sizzling."
On April 20, 2002, the Ravens entered the draft eyeing three prospects and all of them -- running back William Green, offensive tackle Levi Jones and linebacker Napoleon Harris -- were selected ahead of Baltimore's spot. When the Ravens were on the clock, owner Steve Bisciotti wanted cornerback Lito Sheppard, but general manager Ozzie Newsome stuck to his draft board.
With the 24th overall pick, the Ravens chose their 24th-rated player in Reed.
Over the next 12 seasons, Reed became one of the top defensive playmakers of his generation by demonstrating what so many teams failed to measure. He changed games with his ability to read quarterbacks and to trust his gut to jump a route even though he's supposed to be the last line of defense.
Reed finished with 64 interceptions (seventh-most in NFL history), set the league mark with 1,590 interception return yards and established a new standard for ball-hawking defenders. Just as important to Reed, he earned the respect of the quarterbacks he squared off against.
"You see the safeties out in the middle of the field and have a wide open throw on the right. The next thing you know he’s intercepting it," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Where did he come from? It’s impossible. That’s what made it such a challenge. He made the impossible possible."
When Reed announced his retirement five years ago, he named the toughest quarterbacks he ever faced: Roethsliberger, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. Three of them responded to ESPN's request to discuss Reed and this is what each had to say:
The best compliment ever given to Reed was written, not spoken. In the 2011 AFC Championship Game, Brady scribbled on his wristband: "Find 20 on every play."
When the Patriots began game-planning against the Ravens, the focal point of their conversation was Reed. During Bill Belichick's "A Football Life," there's an entire moment dedicated to Brady and Belichick scheming how to attack Reed with different route combinations.
"The thing that most impressed me about Ed Reed was not only his physical ability, because he has every trait — ball skills, range, speed, quickness, but I think what set him apart was his instincts," Brady said. "You knew there were plays where he had deep-field responsibility and he would make a play in front of a linebacker. On the next play, you say, ‘Let’s throw it deep’ and you drop back and he was 40 yards deep."
No matter what the lengths Brady went to in order to avoid Reed, the five time first-team All-Pro was always in position to make a play. Teammates considered Reed a ball magnet.
In a 2009 playoff game, Brady threw the ball down the right sideline, where the pass was batted up in the air. Reed lunged forward to make one of his nine postseason interceptions, tied for the most in NFL history.
"I think everything he did was impressive and instinctive," Brady said. "You never knew what he saw, but he saw everything. You were never going to fool him. He was just on some incredible defenses. He’s one of the greatest safeties I’ve ever seen. If he gets into the Hall of Fame, it would be very well deserved. He’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever faced."
Reed picked off a total of 46 quarterbacks over his career, starting with Brian Griese in 2002 and ending with Ryan Tannehill in 2013.
The quarterback whom Reed intercepted the most was Carson Palmer (six times). Among the quarterbacks who faced Reed at least five times, only one wasn't picked off by him -- Rivers.
“He’s obviously one of the all-time greats," Rivers said. "He wasn’t just your free safety that didn’t let anything get behind him, he was a playmaker. I know as a quarterback, for me he was so unpredictable, you know, where was he going to be? He would do unconventional things, that’s why he was so dangerous."
Reed was so dangerous because he turned one mistake into a touchdown. With the ball in his hand, he instantly transformed from a defender to someone bent on getting the ball into the end zone, whether it was zigzagging through a crowd of players or his improvisational pitching (to the dismay of his coaches). His 13 career non-offensive touchdowns rank as the fifth most in NFL history.
In 2004, Reed set the league mark for the longest interception return, taking back a Jeff Garcia pass 106 yards for a touchdown. Four years later, he broke his own record by picking off Kevin Kolb and returning it 107 yards.
“It wasn’t just like ‘OK, good. They’re in three-deep zone and there’s Ed in the middle. We’re good.’ No, he’s in three-deep zone, but if he sees something, he’s coming to get it," Rivers said. "You had to always to be aware of him. He had great instincts, he was a great athlete – I mean his interception numbers are crazy, and then what he did with it when he did get them -- he scored with it a lot."
Reed was full of surprises, even when it came to calling out the snap count.
During a game against Pittsburgh, Reed heard Roethlisberger shout out a cadence, "Black 20." There was no ulterior meaning, but Reed thought otherwise.
"What are you talking to me for?" Reed hollered at Roethlisberger.
"I just remember thinking, 'What in the world is he doing?'" Roethlisberger said. "Every time I used it and he was close to the line of scrimmage, he would jaw at me."
Roethlisberger often found it to be a futile exercise to try to decipher Reed's madness to his method. He called watching film of Reed almost fruitless because he did something different on nearly every play.
There were times when Roethlisberger would get to the line and see Reed standing at the line of scrimmage. By the time the ball was snapped, Reed was in the middle of the field.
"You couldn’t get a tendency on him," Roethlisberger said. "You think you knew what he was going to do. You thought you knew where he was going to be. Then, the next thing you know, he wasn’t there and he wasn’t doing it."
In the 2011 season opener, Reed picked off Roethlisberger twice near his own goal line to prevent possible scores in a 35-7 win. It was the 12th and final time that Reed recorded multiple interceptions in a game, which is tied for the most in the Super Bowl era.
"Ed was one of those guys who was so incredibly special," Roethlisberger said. "He was smart, athletic. Sometimes you get a guy who is either really athletic or really smart. It’s not too often you meet a guy who has both. Ed was one of those guys who literally had it all."
ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams contributed to this story.