Try to imagine the Ravens defense next season without Ray Lewis. Now try to imagine it without Ed Reed, too. No, I can't do it, either.

One thing's for sure: the Ravens are at a delicate point in their long relationship with the moody free safety with NFL free agency starting Tuesday.

The man is bound for the Hall of Fame and he's been the ultimate team player and community do-gooder for the Ravens. So they don't want to tick him off with a ridiculously low offer.

But with his age (34) and health problems (neck and back issues) working against him, he's not priority No. 1 for them now, either.

The fact he doesn't have an agent representing him makes it harder to deal with the guy, too.

Imagine sitting down to hammer out a contract with Reed and the talk gets around to his diminished production the past couple of years, as it inevitably will.

This is the nature of all player-team bargaining. The player's rep brings up all the good stuff the player has done. The team's rep says: not so fast, he stunk at this, he took a step backward at this, he went downhill at this, etc.

Without an agent to absorb all this for him, Reed has to sit there with a frozen smile on his mug and listen to the Ravens bad-mouth his game.

Which means he could get his back up right away and bolt for the door. And before he even got to his car, he'd have Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots on the horn, or maybe Chuck Pagano of the Indianapolis Colts, both of whom are huge Ed Reed fans and might want to take a flyer on the guy.

Right now, there's no real Plan B for the Ravens at free safety if Reed doesn't come back next season.

The ideal scenario would probably be to sign the guy at a reduced rate and draft a safety to learn from him and take his place in a year or two.

This would be sort of like what the Ravens did when they had Shannon Sharpe at tight end and drafted Todd Heap out of Arizona State in 2001.

Heap played a season behind the eight-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer and learned well. Then he became a starter the following season when Sharpe left via free agency to the Denver Broncos.

The season after that, Heap caught 68 passes for 836 yards and six touchdowns and was voted to the Pro Bowl.

Could something similar happen with Reed grooming the next defensive center-fielder for the Ravens? Who knows?

At the recent NFL scouting combine, the Ravens met with safeties Matt Elam of Florida and D.J. Swearinger of South Carolina.

Both should go early in the April draft. Both would seem to fit with Ozzie Newsome's stated goal of shoring up the middle of the defense. And Swearinger probably aced the interview by reportedly telling the Ravens he patterned his game after Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

The bottom line is it's hard to envision a scenario where Reed and the Ravens can't hammer out a new deal.

Reed clearly wants to stay in Baltimore. "I'm a Raven, I plan on being a Raven," he said recently during an appearance on NFL AM. "I couldn't see me anywhere else right now. If it happens, I'm a football player. I can adapt to any situation."

Well, maybe. But he loves the Ravens and loves the city. And he's absolutely adored by the fans.

His "Two Tickets to Paradise" shtick, which he rolled out right before the Super Bowl, was a huge hit. And if you were at the big parade for the Ravens after they returned from New Orleans, you know no one had more fun letting the fans see and touch the Vince Lombardi Trophy than Ed Reed.

Even at the Academy Awards, where he did red-carpet commentary for "The Rich Eisen Podcast," Reed talked up the Ravens and Baltimore.

My favorite moment came when he traded air kisses with Stacy Keibler and bro-hugs with her squeeze, actor George Clooney, who told him right off the bat: "You hurt me bad. I'm a Bengals fan."

Ed Reed wasn't going to apologize for that.

Now we'll see what happens with him and the Ravens in the next week or so.

No, he's not the player he once was. Everyone knows that. But he can still help this team with his head and his heart and his experience.

It's hard to believe the Ravens would let Reed go. They might let him test the market, as they did with Ray Lewis a few years ago.

But losing two defensive icons might be more than they could take.