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Former Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick worked with Ray Lewis for nine years and Ed Reed for six.
Current Head Coach John Harbaugh has been with them each for the past four years.
This past weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine, the two men were asked about how they see the two Hall of Famers’ careers winding down, and what stage they’re at now.
The Ravens could draft at inside linebacker or safety in April, but it won’t be to replace Lewis or Reed immediately.
Reed, 33, told the team he will return to play in 2012. It will be his 11th season in the league.
A shoulder injury slowed him this past year, yet the free safety still fought through it to start all 18 games. But in the two previous years, Reed was hampered by neck and hip injuries.
“Ed, as you know, is very attuned to [his injuries],” Billick said. The demands on his body and the hits that he takes, at some point … Ed will be prudent, I think, that way.”
Billick said he believes Reed will eventually reach the point where he won’t feel up to the rehab that it takes during the offseason to get his body in shape to play. He saw it happen with All-Pro tackle Jonathan Ogden, who retired after the 2007 season due to a lingering toe injury.
“Ed Reed has the intelligence to see, ‘You know what, I just think I can’t or won’t do the things I have to do in the offseason in order to play,’” Billick said.
He said he didn’t see a physical difference in Reed from recent seasons.
“You can’t say a guy’s the same as he was when he was 22, 23, 24, but I thought he was in the best shape of his career since we’ve been here in 2008,” Harbaugh said.
Reed drew some criticism for missed tackles this season, especially one in the regular-season finale in Cincinnati. But Harbaugh said Reed was being smart throughout the year and that he generally finds a way to get runners down.
Additionally, he still influences teams’ passing attack. Harbaugh said teams weren’t throwing Reed’s way or tossing much deep.
“No question, he’s been the same guy he’s been the past few years or even better,” Harbaugh said.
Lewis hasn’t had the same lingering long-term injuries Reed has endured. The inside linebacker will turn 37 on March 15, but besides missing four games because of a toe injury, has been healthy.
Pundits more frequently raise the question of whether Lewis is simply slowing down too much, a notion his coaches and the linebacker vigorously deny. Sitting in the television booth, Billick sees Lewis still playing at a high level.
“Ray, it amazes me. I thought a couple years ago he was a bit of a liability on third down,” Billick said. “Then he seemed to bounce back in a way only Ray Lewis can. He needed to be on the field every snap.”
Harbaugh also still believes Lewis should be a three-down linebacker.
“Ray against the pass is a very good player,” he said. “How many inside linebackers in this league really are covering backs or tight ends all over the field? They’re really not. You can look at any of these inside linebackers, that’s a mismatch for anybody. Ray does it as well as most all of those guys, even at this stage of his career.”
Harbaugh said there could be a time when he has to have a conversation with Lewis about coming off the field if he wants to play until he’s “50 or something.” He said he wouldn’t keep a player out there if he didn’t think it gave the team the best chance to win.
Billick said his former players used to contact somebody from outside the team, somebody without bias, to tell them whether it was time. It can be difficult for prideful players during their career.
“With Ray Lewis, I really highly doubt we’ll get to that point,” Harbaugh said. “I think Ray’s the kind of guy that watches the tape. He knows how he’s playing. He knows if he’s the best guy on the field or not. In all honesty, he still is the best guy.”
Harbaugh thinks Lewis will be the one that first approaches him to talk about the end, as opposed to the other way around.
“When the time comes, my guess is he’ll come to me and say, ‘Hey, OK, we need to tweak this package or scale it back a little bit,’” Harbaugh said. “Or he’ll just retire. And that day is coming, but I’m in no hurry to get there.”