IRVING, Texas –In the 2002 draft, the Cowboys were looking to shore up the safety position and locked their sights on a hard-hitting safety from the University of Oklahoma. His name was Roy Williams and the team selected him with the eighth overall pick in the draft.
The Cowboys had their safety for the future and it's pretty tough to criticize the selection as Williams went on to make five Pro Bowls in the first six years of his career. However, 16 picks later, in that very same draft, the Baltimore Ravens grabbed a safety named Ed Reed who would go on to become the prototype for an effective safety in the NFL.
Reed is not only still doing his thing, but will also be one of the first players Tony Romo has to identify before each snap in the Cowboys' game in Baltimore this Sunday.
For at least eight years now, Reed has been the first name that comes up (along with perhaps Troy Polamalu) when talking about the best safeties in the NFL.
In 11 years with the Ravens, Reed has recorded 569 tackles and 59 interceptions. With the most interceptions among active players, he currently sits 10th on the all-time list for career picks, and could possibly enter the top five this season.
When Danny McCray graduated from high school in 2006, Reed had already recorded 22 interceptions in his NFL career. A lot has changed in McCray's life since then, but Reed never stopped racking up picks.
McCray, a valuable special teams asset who was awarded the starting safety job after Barry Church went down with a season-ending injury, talked about the reputation that Reed had already made for himself when McCray was still young.
"When I was coming up it was like, you mention safety and you hear Sean Taylor and you hear Ed Reed," McCray said. "He lived up to everything that everybody said about him: always around the ball, great player, smart player. You model your game around anybody, it's Ed Reed."
McCray said what makes Reed so great is obvious: his ball hawking ability.
"His awareness and knowing where the ball is going to be and then finishing the play," McCray said. "You see a lot of good players that can get to the ball, but they can't finish the play. He knows where the ball is going and when it's in the air he goes and gets it."
Safety is one of the most difficult positions to evaluate in the NFL. Size is important, but he still needs to be fast. He needs to be able to help stop the run, but also be disciplined enough to provide a security blanket in the passing game. Reed has proven to be the prototypical safety for all of these reasons, but above all, especially because of his ability to make game changing plays.
Gerald Sensabaugh, a veteran safety with 14 career interceptions of his own, talked about what Reed is able to do that makes him so special.
"Probably the biggest playmaker I've seen since I've been in (the league)," Sensabaugh said. "He's able to get a lot of turnovers, able to get to the football all kinds of ways, playing the deep middle or just playing different coverages. He's a turnover machine. He's always good for eight-plus picks and that's a goal I've tried to reach."
Sensabaugh explained that all great safeties have to work extremely hard to reach a high level of performance, but that Reed also seems to have some sort of natural ability to react faster than the average player.
"It's all great instincts," Sensabaugh said. "He's instinctive. He sees a play and in his head he diagnoses the play so fast. He knows exactly where the quarterback is going and he knows how to hide so the quarterback won't be able to see him then he capitalizes. He doesn't drop many picks. He's just always around the football."
Since Williams left the Cowboys in 2008 (and some might argue a year or two before that) the safety position has been an inconsistent spot for the Cowboys. Sensabaugh has performed well for the past four years, but rarely has had a playmaker lined up along side him. Just as Church was emerging as big-time run stopper, he tore his Achilles, ending his season. Now McCray has stepped in to fill the void.
Lining up at safety opposite the Cowboys' offense will be a model of consistency, durability and playmaking ability. Williams served the Cowboys well, but all these years later, as Williams enjoys the benefits of retirement, Reed is still making plays. In five games this year he has recorded two interceptions, more than the Cowboys' entire defense has all season. It's hard not to imagine what if …