One of the reasons the Chiefs held on so tightly to their Super Bowl dream this year is because they knew there could be some key departures this offseason, when several players are set to hit free agency.
Among them, in particular, are three defensive stars who double as leaders: outside linebacker Tamba Hali, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry.
But after the Chiefs’ 27-20 loss to New England on Saturday, all three noted that they wanted to return to Kansas City in 2016, with the most notable, perhaps, being the 32-year-old Hali, who was battling a balky right knee that kept him from practicing most of the season.
After the game, Hali was asked if he is still contemplating whether he wants to play in 2016.
“Oh no, no, no,” said Hali, a 10-year veteran. “My mind-set is I want to be here, I want to play. Yeah, I do … I’m not contemplating not playing.”
However, Hali added, if he does return, he wants to be confident he can still play at a high level. Though he finished with 48 tackles this year and 6 1/2 sacks, earning his sixth Pro Bowl berth, he wants to play better than he did this year.
“I love the game, and I’ll give it my all every time I have the opportunity to play,” Hali said. “First I’ve got to get healthy, I’ve got to make sure my body’s in shape to be able to play at the level these young guys are coming in playing at. A couple of months from now, we’ll find out where my mind is. But my heart is always with Kansas City, and that’s where it’s going to end.”
Hali dealt with swelling in his left knee in 2014, which was rectified in the offseason. Now he says it’s the other knee that’s bothering him, which will require rehab and surgery.
“It’s tough to play that hurt because it swelled,” Hali said. “Doctors are saying I need surgery, and it’s hard … but with my training and my upbringing and the mentality I got from Penn State, we play, you know? We play. But I’ve got to get healthy, and we’ll see where it’s at.
“I’ve got to play at a high level. I don’t want to limp out there. I’m playing okay. But if I’m healthy, I think I can be more productive out there. Can’t be a one-trick pony.”
Hali took a pay cut to return to the Chiefs in 2015, and the Chiefs should have some incentive to get a deal done with him.
Former agent and salary cap expert Joel Corry currently projects the Chiefs to have a shade under $33 million in cap space for 2016, and if they don’t get a deal done with Hali before March 4 — five days before free agency — they’ll be hit with a $3 million cap charge due to the voidable years left on his deal.
“(But) if they can get that deal done,” Corry said. “They can convert the voidable years into real years.”
Corry said that if Hali were to retire, the Chiefs would still be hit with the $3 million charge. But one of the reasons Hali is focused on playing in 2016 is because he believes the Chiefs are close to playing in a Super Bowl.
“We have the pieces,” Hali said. “And with that staff, you can only imagine what we bring in (this season). As far as me, I’m a team player. Whatever they do, whatever they decide, I’m all in. I’m in.”
In that way, Hali sounds much like Johnson, 33, who is one of the longest-tenured Chiefs along with punter Dustin Colquitt. That’s why the Patriots loss stung him — because he believed this was the year they’d win it all.
“It’s a heartbreaker,” Johnson said.
While Johnson, an 11-year pro, is set to become a free agent this summer, when asked if he thought about coming back next year, he made it clear he’d like to stay in Kansas City.
“I haven’t really thought about it much, but you know, I’m a Chief — I’m a Chief at heart,” said Johnson, a Pro Bowl alternate this year. “The offseason is here now, but we’ll figure all that out. But I’m a Chief.”
Corry said a good comparison for Johnson might be veteran inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, who signed a $24 million deal over four years, with $12 million guaranteed in 2014. Someone like David Harris, who signed a three-year deal for $21.5 million with $15 million guaranteed in 2015, might also be on the high side of that comparison.
“Ideally, you can get him to play in the $5-6 million per year range,” Corry said.
Meanwhile Eric Berry, a sixth-year pro who served as one of the Chiefs’ emotional leaders following his return from Hodgkin lymphoma, is also set to become an unrestricted free agent in March.
Corry said the Chiefs have room to sign Hali, Johnson and Berry — who made his fourth Pro Bowl this year and should be looking to be paid somewhere in the neighborhood of the four-year, $40 million extension Seattle safety Earl Thomas received in 2014 or the five-year, $47.5 million contract New England safety Devin McCourty signed in 2015.
“After his surprisingly fast recovery where there hasn’t been a significant drop off in his play, he’s going to be looking to get paid at the top of the safety market,” Corry said.
Corry said the franchise tag for safeties this year (likely $10 million) is palatable — unlike the linebacker position for Johnson and Hali — which makes that a potential option in Berry’s case.
But Corry noted the Chiefs should still be motivated to get Berry signed because the first-year cap hit will be significantly lower than a franchise figure, which is a good sign considering Berry, when asked after the game if he’d like to return to the Chiefs, said he would.
“Obviously, this is family,” Berry said. “At the same time, we will sit down and talk about it when we talk about it, but right now I’m just thankful for my teammates, my coaches and everybody that has something to do with me being back on the field this year. This is something special. Like I said, we’ll talk about it.”