Thoughts on could-be, former, and never-were Ravens

April 14, 2015 | Luke Jones

The retirement of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu last week revitalized an old debate of deciding between him or former Ravens safety Ed Reed as the best safety of this generation.

The split between the fan bases in Baltimore and Pittsburgh is obvious, but it’s difficult to compare players who brought such different skills to the table. Polamalu was superior against the run, but many forget how effectively Reed played closer to the line of scrimmage early in his career before a nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder hampered him physically. On the flip side, Reed was the superior ball hawk throughout their careers, but Polamalu wasn’t always the same liability in coverage that he became over the last few seasons of his 12-year career.

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King stirred up Ravens fans by deeming Polamalu the best playmaking and instinctive safety of this era. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but Reed’s ability to make plays as a safety, a punt blocker, and as an occasional punt returner was as good as any playmaker I’ve seen short of Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders. In his prime, Reed may have been the greatest free safety in the history of the NFL as his calculated gambles often turned games around for the offensively-challenged Ravens of the time.

I’d take Reed over Polamalu because of his home-run potential, but I would have been happy with either one.

Like King does in evaluating these two great safeties, I’ve been guilty of using the term instinctive, a word that sounds like a compliment but sells short the amount of preparation each player put into his craft. Yes, these are blessed athletes who often appear to have a sixth sense for the ball, but the game-changing plays each safety made were the result of hours of film study and their years of experience on the football field.

It’s worth noting that the Pro Football Hall of Fame hasn’t been kind to safeties historically, but I just don’t see that applying to Reed or Polamalu when they are eligible for induction. As two of the centerpieces in arguably the best rivalry in the NFL over the last 15 years, both received plenty of mainstream attention and each won an AP Defensive Player of the Year award (an honor awarded to a safety just five times in 44 years). Even if they aren’t first-ballot guys — they should be, by the way — neither will wait long to receive the invitation to Canton.

Of course, Reed hasn’t officially retired, which is something with which he needs to come to terms. I’m always supportive of an athlete in his desire to play as long as he wants and to go out on his own terms, but the writing has been on the wall for nearly two years and no one wanted the nine-time Pro Bowl selection in 2014. It’s time for him to call it a career, which will allow the Ravens to induct him into their Ring of Honor this fall.

* After reports surfaced that the Ravens were among the teams showing the most interest in Michael Crabtree, the free-agent wide receiver came to terms on a one-year deal to join the Oakland Raiders Monday night.

The news wasn’t surprising as there were never any indications that Baltimore strongly coveted Crabtree, who was coming off a down season in San Francisco. Questions remain over his explosiveness and ability to separate from defenders following an Achilles injury two years ago, and he was never the type of burner that the Ravens currently need.

I’ll continue to remain skeptical of the organization’s ability to find a suitable replacement for Torrey Smith until it happens. The Ravens can talk up the likes of Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, and Michael Campanaro as much as they want, but they need a receiver to stretch the field and take pressure off the soon-to-be 36-year-old Steve Smith. The current group alone won’t cut it.

* King again fired up fans in predicting that Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon wouldn’t make it past the Ravens with the 26th overall pick, but it wouldn’t be a shocking development given their everlasting commitment to the ground game.

Anyone who watched Gordon play in the Big Ten knows he has the potential to be a special back and Ravens running backs coach Thomas Hammock is very familiar with him after they worked together in Madison. A running back hasn’t been selected in the first round since 2012, but it appears there’s a good chance of that changing in the upcoming draft.

Would Gordon satisfy one of their biggest needs? No, but Justin Forsett will be 30 and isn’t a long-term solution at the position.

I personally would look to a number of running backs who would be attractive in the middle rounds, but coming away with Gordon wouldn’t be surprising or necessarily a bad thing for the Ravens.

* The latest news about former NFL running back Lawrence Phillips being suspected of killing his prison cellmate is another reminder of how lucky the Ravens were to come away with Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden with the fourth overall pick of the 1996 draft.

Had he given into late owner Art Modell’s preference to have Phillips, Ozzie Newsome might not still be the general manager in Baltimore today. At the very least, it’d be difficult to argue that the Ravens would have still won Super Bowl XXXV in only their fifth season in Baltimore.

More than anything, the Ravens might want to thank the Arizona Cardinals for surprisingly taking Simeon Rice with the third pick that year, allowing Ogden to fall into Newsome’s lap.

As the Ravens now begin their 20th season in Baltimore, it’s still incredible to think that Newsome selected two future Hall of Famers — Ray Lewis went 26th overall later in the first round — with the first two draft picks in team history.

* Per Pro Football Talk, the NFL is set to release the 2015 regular-season schedule on April 23.

Considering we already know the Ravens’ opponents, the announcement always comes with too much hype, but it’s intriguing to find out which matchups land in prime time.

I’m only guessing, but I’ll predict that the Ravens play a Thursday night road game in Pittsburgh, a Monday night home game against Cincinnati, and a Sunday night home game against Seattle.

Which games would you like to see in prime time this year?