Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: Eric Berry earned his money, but Chiefs made this deal harder on themselves

The Chiefs signed safety Eric Berry to a long-term contract Tuesday but probably could have done the same thing for a lesser price a year ago.
The Chiefs signed safety Eric Berry to a long-term contract Tuesday but probably could have done the same thing for a lesser price a year ago. deulitt@kcstar.com

Credit the Chiefs for doing what they could to correct a mistake.

Blame them for not learning from the first time they made this mistake.

The Chiefs and Eric Berry agreed to a six-year contract worth $78 million and — this is always the important part — $40 million guaranteed on Tuesday, making him the NFL’s highest-paid safety. In terms of surprise, this ranks somewhere between the sun coming up and seeing a rant about politics on Facebook.

If there was a crumb of surprise to the deal, it’s that it was done now, instead of over the summer, though the Chiefs were working with a soft deadline to use a franchise tag by 3 p.m. Wednesday. By getting Berry’s contract done now, they could use the tag on nose tackle Dontari Poe.

Both team and player had every reason and ambition to get this deal done. That was even truer now than a year ago. While both sides should share the blame for nothing being done then, the Chiefs waited far too long to make an offer and annoyed Berry and his agent by asking him to pay for his own disability policy.

Berry was reportedly seeking between $11 million and $12 million per season a year ago. Instead of negotiating that price down a bit then, the Chiefs are now paying Berry an average of $13 million per year.

In a results-based business, they are now paying a premium for their mistake.

It’s also, with some variations, a repeat of the mistake they made just a few years earlier with Justin Houston.

The Chiefs decided to make Berry prove it on the franchise tag, so he did, with the best season of a career that could be on a Hall of Fame track. Berry won the game in Atlanta with a pick-six and a game-turning pick-two. He returned an interception for a touchdown in that remarkable comeback at Carolina, and generally played the best down-to-down football of his career.

The last time Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry was in Atlanta during the regular season, he was having chemotherapy. On Sunday, Dec. 4, he scored eight points by himself to help his team beat the Falcons 29-28.

Berry also comes with an unassailable reputation as a man and teammate. There is no way to prove this, but Berry’s continued employment with the Chiefs is essential for the team to get the best version of Marcus Peters.

The Chiefs talk about culture and cohesion as much as any team in the NFL, and that message would’ve been severely discredited if they did not give a fair deal to Berry — one of the best at his position, perhaps the best in the locker room, and a cancer survivor who is simultaneously beloved and respected by his teammates.

This contract means Berry will almost certainly play most of his career with the Chiefs, meaning the team is attaching itself to a potential NFL Man of the Year and Pro Football Hall of Famer.

The only frustrating part is the Chiefs now have a pattern of salary cap mismanagement with their best players.

The Chiefs should have, and had every reason to, sign Houston to a long-term contract after the 2013 season. He was just 25 years old, had been chosen to two Pro Bowls, was respected by teammates and known as a good worker. He was also playing on a relatively meager rookie contract after being drafted in the third round. He wanted security, and the Chiefs could’ve given it to him, but wouldn’t meet the price, so they opted for inaction.

They made Houston prove it on the franchise tag, and he did, with 22 sacks, breaking Derrick Thomas’ single-season record and finishing just a half-sack off Michael Strahan’s NFL mark.

That meant the Chiefs gave Houston a $101 million contract with $52.5 million guaranteed, the richest in team history and the NFL’s richest for a linebacker. Surely, the price would’ve been lower a year earlier.

The same pattern played out with Berry. He was chosen first-team All-Pro in 2015 after going through cancer treatments in the offseason. The Chiefs could have signed him to a long-term contract a year ago — both sides spoke often of wanting a deal — but instead are paying more in salary and cap space now.

Add in the awkward timeline of Tamba Hali’s contract — it voided last March, creating dead money, and then a new deal was worked out that paid more than what most viewed as market value.

Eric Berry studies opponents so thoroughly it's sickening, said teammate Tamba Hali after Sunday's victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Berry had an intercepted a pass and a two-point conversion on Sunday and returned both for a score.

The Chiefs entered this offseason with one of the tightest salary cap situations in the league. Some of that is having good players, but too much of it is in these mistakes that leave them paying more.

The most important thing is that a deal was done. The soul of their defense is under contract long-term, and the Chiefs will benefit from whatever advantages come from a locker room seeing a deserving teammate justly rewarded. Even before the draft and free agency, the Chiefs are well-positioned to return to the playoffs.

But this has always been about the Super Bowl, and that goal is hard enough to achieve. The Chiefs made it harder on themselves in a few avoidable ways.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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