Chiefs safety Eric Berry was a good soldier in 2016.
He wanted to get a long-term deal done, and the team said it wanted to, as well. But negotiations never quite heated up – and it wasn’t for a lack of effort on Berry’s part – so he ended up playing the season on a franchise tag that provided him with a hefty $10.8 million salary, but not the long-term security he craved.
So in an interview with The Star on Thursday, Berry made it clear that he had no intention of playing next season under the franchise tag again.
“I’ll just take that time to chill with my family, honestly, (and) I’ll sit the season out,” Berry said, when asked what he’ll do if the Chiefs tag him again. “I just want what’s right. That’s it.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
And in the mind of Berry – and likely anyone who watched the way he led the Chiefs with his words and actions in 2016 – what’s right is a long-term contract with the Chiefs. He was hopeful of getting one last offseason but did not as he instead watched two younger, slightly less-accomplished safeties — Minnesota’s Harrison Smith and Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu — receive the type of deals the 28-year-old Berry, who has two more Pro Bowls (five) than those two combined (three), had been seeking.
But after another All-Pro season – his second in a row – that included some downright iconic moments (such as his “pick-2” in Atlanta and his game-changing pick-6 against Carolina), Berry – who racked up 77 tackles, nine pass deflections and four interceptions – again hits the offseason with a compelling case to become the league’s highest-paid safety.
That would almost certainly happen if he’s allowed to hit the open market, though the Chiefs could again keep him by franchising him for about $13 million. That’s great money, obviously, but a scenario he clearly wants to avoid.
“I’m out, I’m out ... I’m out,” Berry said, when asked again what he’ll do if he’s tagged. “I’m just prepared mentally and emotionally to do what I need to do.”
Berry wasn’t ready to take such a drastic step last offseason, when he skipped organized team activities but returned a few weeks into training camp.
And though he was disappointed by the lack of a long-term deal – and he admitted before the deadline last year that he was surprised by the lack of progress on the team’s part when it came to an extension – he didn’t let that affect his attitude when he returned to the team. He was all smiles upon his return, completely dedicated to helping the Chiefs reach their goal of winning the Super Bowl.
“It didn’t consume me, I just looked at it like ‘OK, it’s something else I’ve got to prove,’ ” Berry said. “Regardless of everything I’ve been through, everything I’ve battled, everything I’ve proven ... it’s never enough.”
Berry already had that “don’t let up” mentality anyway, but it helped him, nonetheless. He put it on the back-burner, controlled what he could control and responded with his second consecutive all-pro season.
The good news for Chiefs fans is that Berry’s frustration can be rectified with a new contract, and Berry says the fact his representation has already engaged in talks with the front office is promising.
“The conversation started earlier,” Berry said. “That’s the optimism.”
Berry is one of two significant free agents the Chiefs have this offseason, including nose tackle Dontari Poe. Without new deals, the Chiefs can retain the services of one of them with the franchise tag.
NFL teams have March 1 to designate franchise or transition players, but to re-sign or tag even one of them, the Chiefs will likely need to make some moves to create some cap room.
According to OverTheCap.com, the Chiefs will have about $4.1 million in cap space for the 2017 season, but could clear a significant amount of space with only a few moves, such as releasing Nick Foles ($10.75 million) or Jamaal Charles ($6.18 million).
Still, no matter how this all plays out, Berry said he wants Chiefs fans to know one thing.
“I’ll always love Kansas City, I’ll always love the fans,” Berry said. “It’s a great city, and the people there are so genuine and so true, I appreciate everything, from the draft, to the injuries, to the diagnosis, to the comeback, everything. I appreciate all of that.”
And you shouldn’t necessarily look at that as a goodbye, either; when asked if he wanted to stay, Berry answered with a firm yes.
“I want to stay in Kansas City, yeah,” Berry said. “The fans, the supporters, the organization ... I feel like we’re going in the right direction. My teammates, especially my secondary, man, I love those guys because we’ve been through so much. People don’t even understand.”
He then tried to explain it.
“I actually enjoy going into the building,” Berry said. “I’ve heard people come from places saying they don’t enjoy going into the building, and I actually enjoy going in there on a daily basis and seeing everybody. I just love it. I’ve got a passion for football, but when you’re doing it with a great group of guys, that adds to it.”