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Report: Eric Berry Won’t Play Under Franchise Tag

The Chiefs’ star defender won’t play another year in Kansas City without a new contract. Will the Titans pursue the former Vol?

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, Kansas City Chiefs’ safety Eric Berry appeared on NFL Network’s Super Bowl Live as part of the network’s week-long coverage of this weekend’s big game.

Berry was asked about his future in Kansas City, to which he replied (quite definitively):

"I'm definitely not going to play under the franchise tag this year. I want to end my career in Kansas City. I want to play there. I love the city, I love the vibe, I love my teammates. I really look at them more than teammates. We've been through a lot and they supported me a lot. And the organization. But I don't feel comfortable playing under the franchise tag this year."

The Chiefs have two key defensive players in Berry and NT (/quarterback?) Dontari Poe set to become unrestricted free agents. (As is to be expected, Arrowhead Pride has written extensively on this topic.)

Dontari Poe

Poe is incredibly strong and remarkably agile for a 350-pound man. His ability to eat up space in the middle of the Chiefs 3-4 defensive front allows for linebackers to shoot the gaps against the run, and his ability to draw and stonewall double-teams allows the edge rushers many one-on-one pass-rushing opportunities.

If the Chiefs let Poe walk in free agency, there’s no players currently on the roster who could step in and replace his contributions.

While the Chiefs drafted Chris Jones with their first pick in the 2016 draft, number 37 overall (after trading down with the San Francisco 49ers), he is not really a true nose tackle. Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard are much better fits at DE in the 3-4. 2015 sixth-round pick Rakeem Nunez-Roches (nicknamed “Nacho”) would be the most likely candidate, but expecting him to offer the same level of play as Poe would be quite a projection.

How much money would Poe command on the open market? Prior to the 2015 season, Marcell Dareus signed a 6-year contract with the Buffalo Bills with an average annual salary of over $16M and $60M guaranteed. He is currently the highest paid nose tackle in the NFL. Salary caps and contract values have only risen since the 2015 offseason.

Poe does have some medical issues to consider after undergoing back surgery to repair a herniated disk in 2015. While this could lower Poe’s asking price a bit, the fact that he is just 26 years old will have 3-4 defensive coordinators salivating. I’d expect Poe to sign a 5 or 6 year deal worth anywhere from $13M - $15M per year.

Eric Berry

Meanwhile, Eric Berry is the heart and soul of the Chiefs secondary and the captain of the defense. One of the top safeties in the NFL, Berry is an excellent ball-hawking safety with the ability to change the course of a game with one play (as he demonstrated when he picked off Matt Ryan on a two-point conversion attempt and returned it for a score to give Kansas City a one-point victory).

After famously missing the 2015 season to receive treatment for lymphoma, Eric Berry returned in 2016 and played at top form. He now stands in a position to become the highest-paid safety in the NFL.

Last season, Berry was the NFL’s 2nd-highest paid safety (playing under the franchise tag) at $10.8M for the year. Tyrann Mathieu is the only safety with a higher average annual salary, making about $12.5M per year. I can’t imagine Berry will take a paycut next season, and it is likely that a team will offer him a contract that surpasses Mathieu’s. Even at $13M per year, though, he would still be fairly cheap relative to contracts given out to some of the top defensive players at other positions, such as Ndamukong Suh’s approximately $19M per year, or Fletcher Cox and Olivier Vernon’s annual earnings of about $17M.

Why Not Both?

If they are both such impactful players, why don’t the Chiefs just sign both of them? Well, it’s not that simple.

According to Spotrac, at the moment, the Chiefs are poised to enter the new league year with just under $6M in available cap space. They could save about $10M by cutting Nick Foles and another $7M if they part ways with Jamaal Charles. Even then, that puts them at only about $23M in available cap space.

Together, Berry and Poe will likely require around $27M per year. The Chiefs would have to reshape many facets of their roster (and fill holes with below-replacement level players) in order to re-sign both of their defensive superstars.

There are extreme measures they could take if they are truly committed to keeping both Poe and Berry. If Alex Smith is cut, that would save them about $9M. They could grab another couple million by parting ways with lower-tier roster guys, such as QB Tyler Bray (dead cap hit of $0, salary of $1.25M).

Fit with the Titans

From the Titans perspective, this dilemma is a very good thing, as either Berry or Poe would be perfect fits and huge upgrades for the Titans defense.

As our own Mike B. “DTM” Herndon outlined, the Titans actually have the cap space to accommodate one of these players.

Whomever Kansas City places the lower priority on should be at the top of the Titans’ free agent priorities.