Chiefs release veteran safety Eric Berry as massive defensive overhaul continues

Chiefs release former Pro Bowler and nine-year NFL veteran safety Eric Berry

The Kansas City Chiefs continued with their defensive overhaul by releasing safety Eric Berry on March 13, 2019.
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The Kansas City Chiefs continued with their defensive overhaul by releasing safety Eric Berry on March 13, 2019.

The Chiefs have released veteran safety Eric Berry in the latest bold move to completely overhaul their woeful defense.

Berry, a 30-year-old former Pro Bowler and nine-year NFL veteran, all with the Chiefs, played sparingly the last two seasons while trying to recover from various injuries.

The decision to release him is part of a massive restructuring under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Chiefs this week signed free safety Tyrann Mathieu to a reported three-year, $42 million free-agent deal and released linebacker Justin Houston and traded linebacker Dee Ford to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

“We continually evaluate every aspect of our football team and we came to the decision that it was in our best interest to release Eric,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said in a news release issued by the team. “Knowing what Eric has meant to this organization and this city made this an incredibly difficult decision. We wish him nothing but the best.”

All three marquee players, Berry, Houston and Ford, carried high-dollar contracts. The team reaps savings of varying degrees by cutting ties with them.

Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry runs onto the field with the team before the start of the game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday night Dec. 13, 2018.

With Berry’s departure, the Chiefs’ 2019 safety corps will likely include Armani Watts, Eric Murray, Mathieu and Jordan Lucas.

Lucas is a restricted free agent, and the Chiefs have tendered him at the sixth-round level. This means the Chiefs have the right to match an offer made to Lucas by another team or take a sixth-round draft pick as compensation.

Both Watts and Lucas showed promise in brief bursts during the 2018 season. Watts, a 2018 fourth-round draft pick, saw action in five games before ending the season on injured reserve with a core muscle injury. His final game of the season came against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 5, when he played 23 defensive snaps. He made a diving stop in that game, leaping in front of Jags tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins on fourth down to prevent a touchdown. But that was Watts’ final snap of the season — he suffered the injury on that play.

Like Watts, Lucas had a high-impact game against the Jaguars. After Watts went down with his injury, Lucas replaced him and grabbed an interception along with seven tackles. Lucas, 25, was a late addition to the team, joining from Miami via a trade at the end of the preseason. He started out as a special teams player but worked his way into the defensive rotation as he filled in for injured players. He finished with 32 tackles and a sack to go with the Week 5 interception.

Berry’s release is a post-June 1 designation, a source told The Star. That means the Chiefs take on $6.95 million in dead money with a cap savings of $9.55 million in 2019. But that also means the additional $8 million in dead money is pushed to at least 2020.

Berry’s release Wednesday prevents $7.25 million of his contract from becoming fully guaranteed on Friday. He was set to receive a base salary of $12.4 million in 2019, with a cap hit of $16.5 million for the Chiefs.

Berry, who signed a six-year, $78 million contract in 2017, played in just three games over the last two regular seasons as he battled an Achilles injury and persistently sore heel. Berry opted not to have surgery in the offseason on his heel.

Over his career, Berry played in 89 games for the Chiefs and earned five Pro Bowl appearances. He had 440 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 14 interceptions — five returned for touchdowns — 51 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Representing more than just football, however, Berry and his signature No. 29 became respected for his successful fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.

“I’d like to thank Eric for his contributions to our team and the Kansas City community over the last nine years,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said in a release. “Seeing his passion and watching his love for the game has been truly remarkable. He’s a special person, and we wish him the best as his career moves forward.”

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.