The Chiefs are looking for a free safety this offseason, and for some, that might come as a surprise. Especially because the search has nothing to do with the late-season struggles of starter Kendrick Lewis.
Instead, it has to do with the presence of Eric Berry, a fourth-year pro who will participate in his third Pro Bowl at 6:30 tonight.
Given the hype around Berry, who was drafted fifth overall in 2010 out of Tennessee, he would seem to be a natural choice to fill Lewis' role if he doesn't return to the Chiefs.
Berry is coming off a strong 2013 season in which he spent most of his time as a linebacker on passing downs and finished with a Pro Football Focus grade of 14.5, which ranks fourth among all safeties. But there is some doubt as to whether he fits the bill as the Chiefs' version of Seattle's Earl Thomas, whose sideline-to-sideline speed and ball skills make him an irreplaceable piece for the NFC champion Seahawks, one the Chiefs perhaps missed most this season.
"I think (Berry) is best utilized in the box," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "He and Earl Thomas were the same year coming out of college, and they're very different . . . Thomas has got better range on the back end, but Berry is a better tackler."
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick agrees, but he remembers when Berry, who suffered a left ACL injury in 2011, was believed to possess elite feet, someone who played a little cornerback in college and could cover receivers with uncommon ease for a safety.
"He's kind of gotten away from some of that," Riddick said. "Sometimes, if you don't use those skills, you wind up training differently. To me, it looks like he's gotten thicker, more muscled up, and he's tighter than he used to be then."
Berry, who was listed at 6 feet and 203 pounds his final year in college, is now listed at 6 feet and 211 pounds.
"When he was in college, I thought his movement patterns were much more fluid," Riddick said. "He didn't appear quite as big and he just didn't appear quite as tight through his core. And you need all that. You need fluid hips, you need explosive short-area quickness to really be a great cover guy like he used to be."
But while Mayock's and Riddick's critiques of Berry might seem harsh at first blush, it's actually more like nitpicking. Though he struggled at times in coverage and against the run in the Chiefs' 45-44 playoff loss to Indianapolis, both analysts consider Berry one of the best safeties in the league, someone any team would like to have.
"That doesn't mean he's a bad player, because he's not," Riddick said. "He's a good player. It's just not of the caliber, I don't think, that it was when he first came out. Which was, I mean . . . he was a bad man when it came to being able to cover and hit. Some of that has changed now. That's all."
In fact, Riddick even called Berry a "very good" 3-4 scheme safety and compared him to a future Hall of Famer who was used in a similar capacity.
"He is a young Troy Polamalu-type, a guy who can play linebacker, play down in the box, play tight ends," Riddick said. "I mean, he's perfect for that."
Mayock agrees, and thinks the Chiefs would be better served using him in the same manner next season.
"He's aggressive, he's comfortable playing that dime linebacker slot that (defensive coordinator) Bob Sutton had him play a lot," Mayock said. "He could take a tight end out of the game for you . . . he struggled with some big tight ends recently, but for the most part, I think he's best in the box because of his physicality and ability to cover tight ends and running backs."
But in the Chiefs' aggressive press-man scheme, which relies heavily on a free safety with range to roam the middle, it's up to the Chiefs to determine how valuable that is. Berry's cap number is $11.6 million next season, the second highest on the team, but all one needs to do is look to Seattle -- which features Thomas at free safety and 6-foot-3, 232-pound Kam Chancellor at strong safety -- to see which position is more important.
"To use your Seattle analogy, I think (Berry is) more (like) Kam Chancellor, the guy in the box that's got some man-to-man skills but is more able to line up against a tight end in man-to-man than he is to drop down on a slot," Mayock said. "I think what you're looking for is a free safety on the back end that's got better range."
It remains to be seen where the Chiefs will acquire that player. Though the team remains high on the potential of 2013 fifth-rounder Sanders Commings, whose rookie season was marred by injuries, Buffalo's Jairus Byrd fits Sutton's scheme.
Byrd, 27, is a true center-field-type safety and three-time Pro Bowler who lacks Thomas' speed but is a smart ball hawk. But even if he doesn't re-sign with the Bills, he has publicly voiced his belief that he should be the game's highest-paid safety, which would likely pay him upwards of $9 million annually.
That's an enormous number, particularly for the Chiefs, who will have to aggressively restructure or extend the contracts of some key players this offseason to build on the projected $2.5 million of cap room they are expected to have in 2014.
In that respect, a few negotiation targets could include Tamba Hali ($11.4 million), Brandon Flowers ($10.5 million), Alex Smith ($8 million cap number), Jamaal Charles ($4.8 million), Derrick Johnson ($4.2 million) and, yes, Berry. Even if the Chiefs freed up money, it remains to be seen if they'd be willing to invest that much at safety, especially with Berry's contract still on the books through 2015.
"Philosophically, I don't know if John (Dorsey, the Chiefs general manager) believes in allocating the kind of resources it will take to get a player like that at that position," Riddick said. "It will depend on what his philosophy is, as far as how he's going to spread out his cap money, to even consider signing somebody like him. So we'll see."
Dorsey, of course, isn't going to say. He prefers to keep the business of football out of the media.
But when asked how much better his well-paid, Pro Bowl safety -- one who fills a big role but not necessarily his team's biggest defensive need -- can get, well, Dorsey isn't afraid to make his opinion on the matter known.
"He has the utmost respect, he's a good player," Dorsey said. "I'm sure he's got a lot (of growth left)."
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.
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