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Titans Free Agency 2017: Eric Berry

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Could the former University of Tennessee star return to the Volunteer State in 2017?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Kansas City Chiefs Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Berry is one of the most exciting defensive players I have ever watched play football. He really needs no introduction around this part of the country since most of us (even non-UT fans) have been following his career since he picked off Tim Tebow and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown.

It would be the first of 14 interceptions of his college career which resulted in 494 interception return yards, finishing just 7 yards short of Terrell Buckley’s NCAA record 501 career interception return yards. Fun Fact: Kevin Byard checks in at #14 on that list with 377 career interception return yards. Berry wasn’t “just” an interception machine though. He was a big hitter and sure tackler who seemed to fly around the field like a guided missile.

Both safety positions for the Titans have been in a state of change the last few seasons. After being a staple of the Titans defense for 9 years, Michael Griffin was released after the 2015 season, and replaced by a combination of Rashad Johnson and Kevin Byard in 2016. The Titans signed Da’Norris Searcy two years ago to lock down the other safety spot, but after spending 2015 as the full time starter he ended up on the short end of a rotation with Daimion Stafford this past season.

Most fans and analysts believe that Byard will be a long term starter for the Titans at one safety spot based on his excellent rookie season. One of the best aspects of Byard’s rookie year was that he showed the ability to play both the deep, traditional free safety role and the in-the-box traditional strong safety role meaning the Titans have a lot of flexibility with regards to the “type” of safety that they could consider playing next to him. Ideally I would like to see another do-it-all type guy next to Byard so we can more easily hide our schemes based on alignment. Who that other safety is moving forward is less certain. Johnson and Stafford are both unrestricted free agents this offseason so there is no guarantee that either of those guys will be back with the Titans in 2017. Searcy isn’t a major liability on the field, but he hasn’t played to the level of being the 5th highest paid strong safety in the NFL over the past two years. If the Titans have a shot at a guy like Berry, Searcy could be released to offset $4.5M of the new safety’s salary in 2017 and over $6M of his salary in 2018. I will talk more about the likelihood of Berry actually becoming available later, but let’s get to know a little more about his professional career first.

The Stats

  • Age: 28
  • Height: 6’-0”
  • Weight: 212 lbs
  • College: Tennessee
  • Experience: 7 years
  • Drafted in 1st round (#5 overall) of 2010 NFL draft by Kansas City

Eric Berry Stats CSV.csv

Year Team G Tkls Sck PDef Int TDs
Year Team G Tkls Sck PDef Int TDs
2016 Kansas City Chiefs 16 77 0 9 4 2
2015 Kansas City Chiefs 16 61 0 10 2 0
2014 Kansas City Chiefs 6 37 0 2 -- --
2013 Kansas City Chiefs 15 74 3.5 10 3 2
2012 Kansas City Chiefs 16 86 0 10 1 0
2011 Kansas City Chiefs 1 0 -- -- -- --
2010 Kansas City Chiefs 16 92 2 9 4 1
TOTAL 86 427 5.5 50 14 5

Berry’s pro career has been every bit as successful as his college career was. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl in 5 of his 7 NFL seasons. The only seasons he didn’t make the Pro Bowl were the 2011 season when he tore his ACL in the first game of the season and of course the 2014 season when Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is truly inspirational that Berry was able to beat cancer and not only return to the field less than a year later, but play to a level that he was selected First-Team All-Pro that year. He repeated as a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2016 marking the third time in his incredible career that he has been considered the best strong safety in the NFL. It’s almost impossible to give Berry too much praise in my opinion. Even coming out of Tennessee, scouts couldn’t find anything to put in the “weaknesses” box:

Strengths

Berry has a supreme blend of strength and athleticism for a defensive back. One of college football?s most productive players during the last three seasons. Is a very smart defender who displays outstanding instincts. Has tremendous range when playing the run or pass. Very aggressive coming up in run support. Has the leadership qualities to mold into a future team captain.

Weaknesses

Not many areas of concern with Berry. Front offices must check shoulder surgery. Only possesses average size for a safety at the next level but plays bigger than his listed measurables.

Will He Actually Hit the Market?

It’s obvious that Berry would be an ideal fit for the Titans. He would be an ideal fit for every NFL team. For the Titans though, Berry would offer a playmaking safety to pair with Byard to form one of the most versatile and talented back lines in the NFL. So the real question here is whether or not he will actually hit the market. Last offseason, Berry and the Chiefs tried to come to terms on a long term contract, but according to some reports the two sides never even really got close which resulted in the Chiefs using the franchise tag to keep Berry in Kansas City while paying him $10.8M last season. There is no doubt that Berry wants to be back in Kansas City and Kansas City wants him back, but the fact that a deal still isn’t done just a month away from the start of 2017 free agency seems to indicate that the two sides may still be far apart. Berry recently stated firmly that he would sit out 2017 if the Chiefs placed the franchise tag on him for a second straight year. Berry reportedly wants to be the highest paid safety in the NFL which would put his yearly average cap hit somewhere north of Tyrann Mathieu’s recent 5 year, $62.5M deal with the Cardinals that pays him $12.5M on average per year. Considering what Berry has accomplished in the league versus what Mathieu has done it is hard to argue with his line of reasoning. Even if the Chiefs did try to franchise tag Berry it would cost them around $13M in 2017 and they would also have to deal with the PR backlash that would come with it when Berry starts holding out of camp. So can the Chiefs afford to pay Berry somewhere around $13M a year?

The Chiefs are one of the NFL’s most cap strapped teams heading in to 2017. According to Spotrac they currently have just $851,147 of available cap space for next season. Complicating this matter is the fact that Dontari Poe, the Chiefs massive nose tackle, is also set to become a free agent in March and he is expected to get something close to $13M himself. They do have some roster moves that they will likely make to clear some room though. The most likely moves to create space would be to release QB Nick Foles ($10.75M savings), P Dustin Colquitt ($4.1M savings), DT Jaye Howard ($4M savings), RT Jah Reid ($2.1M savings), and TE Demetrius Harris ($1M savings) which would get them to approximately $20.3M of available cap space for 2017. The next step would be to cut Jamaal Charles which would save $7M and possibly Jeremy Maclin who would save $5M. That gives the Chiefs a grand total of about $31.3M of cap space. If you set aside about $4M for their incoming rookies that means they have about $27.3M to re-sign Poe and Berry AND replace the 7 players that they let go. So yes, the Chiefs could just barely afford to keep both Poe and Berry this offseason, but that means they not only are undercutting their roster elsewhere, but also are likely not going to be able to add any significant free agent additions this year or next year. So where is this Chiefs team going if they basically bring back a weakened version of the 2016 squad? I suppose you could hope that they nail their draft and get better that way. Or perhaps they will try to work out a deal to get Tony Romo to replace Alex Smith. I’m not sure even Romo moves the needle enough to take the Chiefs from fringe playoff team to Super Bowl contender. Bringing back Poe and Berry keeps the Chiefs on the path to nowhere in my opinion. If they decide to choose one, Poe may actually be their choice. He’s 2 years younger than Berry and 350 lbs nose tackles who move like he does don’t come around very often. Of course neither does an all-world safety like Berry. There are some smart NFL analysts that think the Chiefs would be wise to move on from Berry to get them out of their ongoing struggles with the salary cap. Kansas City has some really tough decisions to make this offseason and the Titans stand to be a potential beneficiary of those choices since Berry, Poe, and Maclin would all make a lot of sense in the Two-Tone Blues.

Eric Berry would probably be the most exciting of all the potential free agent signings the Titans could make this offseason. He’s a true superstar and would instantly become one of the most popular Titans among fans. A safety pairing of Byard and Berry would work magic in a secondary that desperately needs help and the cherry on top is that by cutting Searcy the Titans can actually sign Berry at $13M per year and still afford to go get one of the top corners and one or two other high level free agents. It also puts Berry back in Tennessee where he is still loved by Vols fans and just a few hours from his hometown of Atlanta. While I won’t truly get my hopes up until March 9th, I would love to see this happen.