Thursday March 1st, 2012

Ed Reed has been one of the league's premier ballhawks since being drafted in 2002. (Getty Images)

As part of our offseason coverage, we're taking a look back at some of the best first-round draft picks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. We'll work our way up the draft board, starting with the best selection made with the No. 32 pick and ending with the top No. 1 pick. Track all the choices here.

The No. 24 Pick: Ed Reed, 2002, Ravens

His Credentials: Eight-time Pro Bowl selection, eight-time All-Pro, 2004 AP Defensive Player of the Year, holds NFL record for longest interception return (107 yards), named to NFL All-Decade Team for 2000s, has 57 career regular-season interceptions and six touchdowns

Others in Consideration: Chris Johnson (2008, Titans); Aaron Rodgers (2005, Packers); Steven Jackson (2004, Rams); Dallas Clark (2003, Colts); Eric Moulds (1996, Bills); James Brooks (1981, Chargers)

The Pittsburgh Steelers may be working through massive salary cap issues, which caused them Tuesday to bid farewell to their all-time leading receiver, Hines Ward, but there's good news: The No. 24 pick in the draft, where Pittsburgh selects in 2012, has been a goldmine in recent years.

Actually, scratch that. The No. 24 pick has been producing talent in Round 1 since 1970, when Oakland took eventual two-time Pro Bowl tight end Raymond Chester. Since then, in addition to the other names listed above, that draft slot has churned out names like Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, Ken O'Brien, Chad Scott and Robert Jones -- all solid contributors in the NFL for several seasons.

Sure, there have been some busts (lookin' your way, Todd Marinovich), but there has been more good than bad.

That is especially true over the past decade, ever since Baltimore selected Reed in 2002. The No. 24 picks after Reed: Clark, Jackson, Rodgers, Johnathan Joseph, Brandon Meriweather, Johnson, Peria Jerry, Dez Bryant and Cameron Jordan. The book is still out on a couple of those guys, but there are several bona fide stars in there.

In fact, for all of Reed's accomplishments, you could make a case for Rodgers or Johnson at this spot.

Of course, you'd be wrong -- Reed deserves the nod. Even 10 seasons into his career, the 33-year-old remains a force in Baltimore's secondary and has earned a spot as one of the best ever at his position.

"To me, Ed Reed is probably one of the greatest safeties I ever saw play this game," Ray Lewis told the Boston Globe during Baltimore's playoff run.

Reed's career highlights bear that out. Not only is he one interception away from jumping into the NFL's top 10 all-time in that category, but he has thrice led the league in picks and owns the two longest INT returns in league history -- a 107-yarder in 2008 and a 106-yarder in 2004.

"When you break the huddle, you find where he's at and you make sure you're not lobbing the ball up in his zones," Patriots QB Tom Brady said prior to his team's AFC title game against Baltimore, "because as you saw in the Houston game, he's going to go up there and make the plays. He's just an exceptional player. I don't think there is a weakness that he has."

Reed and Lewis have combined to give Baltimore one of the most impactful 1-2 defensive punches the league has ever seen, and that duo has helped the Ravens to six postseason berths in the past nine seasons.

Reed has yet to get over the top with a Super Bowl win -- Baltimore's lone title since reentering the league came during the 2000 season, two years before it drafted Reed out of Miami. With Reed telling the team he'll be back for at least one more season, the Ravens should give him another realistic opportunity to end his title drought. However, even if he continues to fall short, Reed's legacy as a rare and dominant defensive talent has been written already.

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