Proving they’re serious about getting younger next season, the Chiefs have decided to let inside linebacker and franchise cornerstone Derrick Johnson hit free agency in March.
Johnson, a 35-year-old veteran who has played all 13 of his NFL seasons in Kansas City, told The Star on Tuesday that he was made aware of the team’s decision during a recent discussion with general manager Brett Veach.
A four-time Pro Bowler, Johnson recorded 71 tackles and seven pass deflections in 2017 after fast-tracking his recovery from a torn Achilles the previous December.
He signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension in March 2016. When he restructured that deal a year ago, he freed up $4.25 million and voided the third year of the contract.
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“When I restructured my deal, I voided my last year out,” Johnson said. “In order for me to come back with the Chiefs, we’d have to work on a deal or do something for a one-year type of deal.
“But the Chiefs, they wanted to go younger across the board — that’s what (general manager Brett) Veach was talking about. I wasn’t in their plans, and I understood that. They’ve got some cap issues, and even though I would have bended some to be a Chief, there really was no negotiation. I just wasn’t in the plans. And that happens; it is what it is.”
Johnson will become a free agent on March 14, the first day of the new league year. Including the impact of Tuesday’s news, the Chiefs will have about $15 million in salary-cap space once their recent trade of Alex Smith to Washington goes through.
Although he saw his defensive workload decrease due to the emergence of a pair of younger players, Reggie Ragland and Kevin Pierre-Louis, Johnson still led all the Chiefs’ inside linebackers in total snaps in 2017, with 896. He was on the field for 76.5 percent of the Chiefs’ defensive plays, or 45 percent more than Ragland, the next-closest player at his position.
“I thought there’d be a chance we could negotiate something,” Johnson said. “But it is what it is. I appreciate Veach being straight up with me by saying, ‘Hey, this is where we’re going. I don’t want to lead you on. We appreciate and respect everything you’ve got going on, but right now, D.J., you’re not in our plans going forward.’”
The Chiefs certainly respect Johnson’s contributions through the years. Veach, chairman Clark Hunt and coach Andy Reid all issued appreciative statements Tuesday, reminiscent of the sendoff they gave future Ring of Honor member Jamaal Charles last offseason.
“Few players in recent history have meant more to the Chiefs franchise and the Kansas City community than Derrick Johnson,” Hunt said in a statement. “His tireless work ethic and passion for the game made him one of the most productive defensive players to ever wear a Chiefs uniform and one of the most respected players both in our locker room and around the league.
“Over the last 13 seasons, Derrick represented himself and the Chiefs organization with integrity and class, and he will always be a part of our Chiefs family.”
Johnson was a first-round pick by the Chiefs in 2005 out of Texas. He went on to become the team’s all-time leading tackler, with 1,262.
“Letting go of a player like Derrick is particularly tough because of how much respect I have for him as a player and as a person,” Veach said. “He’s had a tremendous career here in Kansas City, and we wish him nothing but the best moving forward.”
Reid said he’s grateful he was able to coach Johnson, whose career in KC spanned three general managers. With his departure, punter Dustin Colquitt will be the lone remaining Chief who was drafted by former GM Carl Peterson. Johnson saw all the highs and lows here, playing for two 2-14 teams that eventually rebounded to make the playoffs.
“He’s a passionate football player and a natural leader,” Reid said. “I value the amount of quality work he put in every day for us, including teaching our younger players what it means to be a pro. I think he will make an incredible coach when he is done playing the game, if he chooses.”
Johnson told The Star that he expects to continue his playing career elsewhere this fall in pursuit of a Super Bowl ring.
“I at least want to play a couple more years,” he said. “I at least want get to 15 years in the league. Right now, I’m just chasing a ring, man. I am.
“When I hit the free-agency market, my decision will be based on who can be a contender and who has a need for me to play. I don’t want to just go on a team; I want to be a part of a team to help them win a championship.”
Johnson had hoped to do so with the Chiefs.
“It’s going to be a tough deal to leave Kansas City,” he said. “We knew it was coming at some point. But they say it usually comes sooner than later, and it’s here.”
Johnson made it clear that he’ll always consider the Chiefs his No. 1 team. When asked if he’s leaving with any hard feelings against the organization or Reid, Johnson said no.
“Not at all, man, not at all,” Johnson said. “I’ve had five head coaches, and he’s the best. I’ve won a lot with Andy Reid and I have a lot of respect for him. I think the world of Kansas City, so there’s no bridges burned. It’s a good, long relationship and everyone knew it would end at some point.
“I’m a Chief at heart. My kids are Chiefs fans, and I’m sure whatever team I’m on (next), my kids are gonna have two teams, I’ll tell you that.”