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Eric Berry Is Worthy of Being the NFL’s Highest-Paid Safety

The Chiefs star is both a franchise hero and one of the keys to its future

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Two years, two months, and 20 days after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Chiefs safety Eric Berry reportedly agreed to a six-year, $78 million deal (with $40 million guaranteed) that will make him the NFL’s highest-paid safety. Berry returned from cancer treatment in 2015 in one of the most emotionally stirring moments in recent NFL history, and he immediately reclaimed his spot among the sport’s elite safeties, earning first-team All-Pro and Comeback Player of the Year honors that season.

But it’s not just his personal history that makes Tuesday’s news, which keeps Berry from becoming an unrestricted free agent, so satisfying for the Chiefs faithful. Berry is their defensive linchpin, around whom their playoff hopes revolve, and for a cap-strapped team that could lose a chunk of its production this offseason — including franchise icon Jamaal Charles, whom Kansas City reportedly is releasing — retaining its best player was vital.

Berry, the no. 5 pick in the 2010 draft, embodies a combination of steady production and game-breaking ability rarely found in a defensive back. While most teams employ safeties with complementary skill sets — one to protect against the deep pass and one to stuff the run, or perhaps one to ball hawk and one to remain cautious — Berry blends all of those traits into one dynamic presence in the secondary.

He grades as one of the best run stoppers and pass defenders at his position, according to Pro Football Focus, and he supplements that stalwart play with flashes of individual brilliance. Just last season, he tallied the Chiefs’ only touchdown in a 20–17 win over Carolina, juking a full complement of Panthers to score off a Cam Newton interception; he returned a Matt Ryan pick for a score; and he returned another Ryan pick for a score, this time on a two-point conversion attempt that backfired and helped Kansas City secure a one-point win. He also snagged a Ben Roethlisberger pass right before it hit the end zone turf in the AFC divisional round, giving him a pick in each of the past two postseasons.

Overall, Berry scored as many touchdowns (two) in the 2016 season as Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin — and he also ranked second on the team in total tackles (77). With Berry in command, the Chiefs tied for the league lead in interceptions and ranked third in opposing passer rating, as well as placing seventh in Football Outsiders’ DVOA both against the pass generally and on deep throws specifically.

In the world of professional football, Berry is a relatively good bet to stay on the field. Discounting his ailment-riddled 2014 campaign, when he suffered a high ankle sprain in September and later sat out due to his lymphoma diagnosis, he has missed just one game since 2011. (Yet given how a single injury can affect a player’s career, $40 million guaranteed is also a worthy and necessary haul for Berry.)

He’s been selected a first-team All-Pro three times and a Pro Bowler five — both totals marking him as an equal of the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas, his NFC counterpart and the best modern example of the steady-plus-brilliant archetype Berry fits. He might not play quite at Thomas’s level, but he’s close, and that’s praise enough. Seattle’s defense collapsed when it had to play without Thomas last season, and the same could have happened with Kansas City had it not re-signed Berry: Since 2013, the Chiefs have placed in the top seven in DVOA for pass defense three times, the one exception coming in 2014 with their star safety out.

No matter how many more Pro Bowls he reaches or touchdowns he scores, Berry will remain a tremendous feel-good story for as long as he wears a Chiefs uniform. But the significance of this signing goes further — he’s also a tremendous player and a key to Kansas City’s Super Bowl aspirations, and he’s well deserving of the “highest-paid safety” designation. At least until Thomas signs his next contract in a couple of years, anyway.