For the fifth time in six years, the Chiefs used the franchise tag to retain a star player facing free agency. This time, it was safety Eric Berry.
By using the tag, Berry, the NFL’s comeback player of the year for 2015, will receive a one-year tender worth $10.806 million.
“Our goal is to keep Eric in Kansas City for the foreseeable future,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said in a release. “He’s a special player that means a lot to our organization, the city, and has been a critical piece in building our foundation. With today being the deadline to use the franchise tag, we felt it was in the best interest of the club to place the tag on Eric.”
Berry, 27, served as the emotional leader of the 2015 Chiefs, fast-tracking his way back from a Dec. 2014 diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma to return in time for the start of training camp. He looked quicker and faster as he racked up 61 tackles, 10 pass deflections and two interceptions as he made the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in four seasons.
“When you say the word Eric Berry, there’s a lot of things that come to mind,” Dorsey said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “The inner toughness, the strong-mindedness, the spiritual gift of believing from within. Being around him on a daily basis, he’s just a good guy to be around. He is totally professional, he is totally committed to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I think that’s important for him, and that’s important for the organization moving forward.”
The move should not come as much of a shock. In early February, even Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt spoke glowingly about how much the organization valued Berry’s contributions.
“Certainly, Eric is somebody that’s very important to the franchise,” Hunt said a few days before Super Bowl 50. “Coach Reid and his staff think highly of him. They appreciate the leader that he’s become and obviously personally, he had the amazing year overcoming cancer. We’ll do everything we can to try to bring him back.”
The decision to franchise Berry means the Chiefs will retain at least one key defensive stalwart, though it also means a number of other key defensive players will become free agents on March 9, barring a new contract agreement.
The list of potential departures include two team icons — outside linebacker Tamba Hali and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson — and three underrated starters in cornerback Sean Smith, defensive tackle Jaye Howard and offensive guard Jeff Allen.
Howard, 27, and Smith, 28, particularly appear to benefit by testing the open market. Both are good, productive starters in their primes and the NFL salary cap went up $13 million this offseason.
That’s good news for those two, in addition to other Chiefs free agents: quarterback Chase Daniel, safety Tyvon Branch, defensive end Mike DeVito, safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Jason Avant, offensive tackle Donald Stephenson, outside linebacker Frank Zombo, cornerback Jamell Fleming and outside linebacker Dezman Moses.
But one player the Chiefs decided they simply couldn’t let get away is Berry, who was also chosen first-team All-Pro for the second time in his career in 2015. Berry had a salary cap number of $8.35 million in 2015, which means he’ll see a raise of at least $2 million this year.
The move all but ensures Berry will be a Chief in 2016. As a recipient of the non-exclusive tag, he can still field offers from other teams, but the Chiefs would still have the right to match any offer, and if they decline to do so, they would stand to gain two first-round picks from the team that signs Berry.
That’s a heavy price, one that a team hasn’t been willing to pay in many years. Even Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston — who was only 26 years old and was coming off a 22-sack season when he was hit the non-exclusive tag last March — didn’t find any takers.
The two sides have until July 15 to work out a long-term contract, though Berry does not have to sign the one-year franchise tender immediately. By holding off, he could skip the Chiefs’ offseason program when it begins in April, organized team activities and even the preseason, return shortly before the regular season and still command his full salary.
The Chiefs also have the option of rescinding the tender on Berry at any point, but that would make him an unrestricted free agent.