Against the backdrop of approximately 352 kids laughing, jumping and playing on a humid summer night, Chiefs safety Eric Berry wore a smile on his face as he stood on the turf at North Kansas City High School and explained what he knew about his current contract status.
And Berry — who has until July 15 to get an extension done with the Chiefs, lest he play the 2016 under the one-year franchise tag — took a break from his sixth annual free youth football camp on Friday and made a few things clear.
One, he absolutely still wants to be a Chief for the long term.
And, two, yes, he is a bit surprised it’s taken so long for a new deal to get done.
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“I thought it would progress a little bit more,” Berry said. “But it’s still been pretty much the same since the last time we talked. A lot can change in a week. A lot can change for whenever the deadline is.”
Berry’s surprise makes sense. Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said at the NFL’s annual meeting in March that he’s hopeful to get a long-term deal done with Berry, and that he’s “certainly” somebody that they “would like to be a Chief for a very, very long time.”
Hunt added that he got a sense that Berry shared the sentiment to stay, a notion the 27-year old Berry — who has spent the last seven years with the Chiefs — also said in March and repeated Friday.
“Obviously I’d love to be a Chief — I want to be a Chief long term, just because of the community, the staff, from top to bottom, the players and everything,” Berry said. “But sometimes things don’t go as planned, and I’m prepared for that, but hopefully it goes as planned, and I’m prepared for that, as well.”
If the Chiefs can’t reach a new deal with Berry before the July 15 deadline, Berry would have to play the 2016 season under the $10.8 million franchise tender. However, he could also hold off on signing the tender, which would allow him to skip training camp and the preseason and return shortly before the regular season and still collect his full $10.8 million salary.
Still, an extension is sensible for both sides. Although the franchise tender is good money (and guaranteed, too) Berry stands to collect far more guaranteed money with a new deal, as he has two more all-pro selections (two) and three more Pro Bowl selections (four) than the league’s highest-paid safety, Harrison Smith, who recently signed a five-year, $51.25 million pact with the Vikings that includes nearly $29 million guaranteed.
What’s more, assuming Berry agreed to a richer deal than Smith’s, the cash-strapped Chiefs — who have a league-low $226,818 in cap space. according to the NFL Players Association — would still stand to create a minimum of $3 million or so in cap room this year with an extension. It’s worth noting the team already has a significant amount of money committed to 2017 — upwards of $166 million, which already surpasses the 2016 cap number of $155 million.
The Chiefs also have the option of rescinding the tender on Berry, which would create $10.8 million in cap room. However, that would make one of their most popular — and more important — players an unrestricted free agent, which hardly seems like a reasonable option for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere (without him),” said center Mitch Morse, who helped out at Berry’s camp on Friday. “I’ve only met a few people who, when they walk into a room full of people, that you feel their presence and people immediately shut up. He’s such a profound speaker, and he has profound things to say, and you inherently want to listen and gain knowledge. You respect the hell out of him.”
Berry, who fast-tracked his way back from a December 2014 diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma to return in time for the start of training camp last July, served as the emotional leader of the 2015 Chiefs, which rallied from a 1-5 start to win 11 straight games, including their first playoff win in 22 years.
He did it on the field too, as he looked quicker and faster than in previous seasons — he was back to playing at his college weight of 210 pounds — on the way to racking up 61 tackles, 10 pass deflections and two interceptions and make the Pro Bowl, be named an all-pro and win the NFL’s comeback player of the year award.
“He’s one of the main focal points of this team,” said Morse, whose comments have been parroted by several teammates, including quarterback Alex Smith. “He means a lot to Chiefs Kingdom, and he sure as hell means a lot to us, as players. We’re incomplete without him and we love the energy and passion he brings.”
Still, business is business, and Berry understands that. One of his closest friends on the team is outside linebacker Justin Houston, who was franchise-tagged in March 2015 after a 22-sack season and had to wait out the next several months as his agent, Joel Segal, and the Chiefs hammered out a six-year, $101 million extension right before the July 15 deadline.
“It’s crazy because I was talking to him when he was going through the exact same thing — it’s like roles have switched just a year later,” Berry said. “He just keeps telling me to be patient and control what I can control. So I gave him that advice, and he’s given me the same advice. That’s all I can do.”
So Berry, who has always believed in letting his work speak for himself, has spent the last several months training in Florida, getting ready for the season.
He looked trim and happy as he worked with the kids on Friday — the turnout was the best his camp in Kansas City has ever had, by the way — his trademark brown, red-tinged hair and goatee fluffy and full, a stark contrast to the way he looked last summer, even after his chemo treatments had long come to an end.
To be sure, Berry is grateful for that, a fact that came across as he spoke optimistically about his goals for the next several months, despite the uncertainty of his contract situation.
“I definitely want to get a ring, and I definitely want to be a Chief,” Berry said. “Hopefully, we can make that happen.”
And to be clear, Berry hasn’t lost faith, regardless of his surprise at the lack of recent progress.
“You know miracles happen — I’m a witness,” Berry said with a smile. “So it might go down to the wire, you know ... and hopefully they handle their end, and hopefully it comes together like it’s supposed to.”