Should Eric Berry Become the Highest-Paid Safety in the NFL?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 24, 2016

Oct 4, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Kansas City Chiefs free safety Eric Berry (29) looks on during a stop in play against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 36-21. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler reported Eric Berry—unsurprisingly—has a chance to become the NFL's highest-paid safety. 

"Berry knows he has one chance at this and has eyes set on a big number," Fowler wrote of the four-time Pro Bowler. "He would need to surpass Harrison's Smith five-year, $51.25-million deal, but that's feasible at this point. The market is set for him."

Is Berry worth more than $10.25 million a year? What about the $28.6 million in guaranteed money that Smith got from the Minnesota Vikings earlier this offseason? Let's break it down. 

Technically, he'll already be the NFL's highest-paid safety in 2016

That's because the Kansas City Chiefs slapped him with a franchise tag worth $10.8 million. But the Chiefs found a way to sign Justin Houston to a long-term deal after tagging him last year, and all signs point to Kansas City locking Berry into a new deal before the July 15 deadline.

Highest paid safeties in terms of average salary
1. Eric Berry$10.8M*
2. Harrison Smith$10.3M
3. Earl Thomas$10.0M
4. Devin McCourty$9.5M
5. Jairus Byrd$9.0M
* Franchise tag value (Spotrac)

"Of all the franchise-tagged players," added Fowler, "Berry's path to long-term deal could be the smoothest."

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But the Chiefs are short on salary-cap space. In fact, according to Over the Cap, they have a league-low $1.2 million remaining. So they may look to design Berry's new deal in a way that gives them some immediate relief. 

Ironically, a new contract could make Berry the highest-paid safety in the game (overall) while also costing him that particular claim to fame for the 2016 season alone. 

Age is in his corner

Berry signed a six-year, $50 million entry-level contract just a year before those deals ceased to exist in the entry-level football world. The bad news for guys who signed deals like those in 2010 is they're only now reaching free agency after more than a half-decade of service. The good news is they've been able to make a lot more money than rookies who came into the league once the new collective bargaining agreement was adopted in 2011. 

Most Pro Bowl nods after 30, since 2000
Defensive end37
Defensive tackle30
Inside linebacker23
Outside linebacker16
Pro Football Reference

But for Berry, it might be a win-win. Not only has he already made $50 million in six years, but he was also barely 21 years old when he came into the league. At 27, he's probably just now entering his prime. 

That's the beautiful thing about being a safety. You have a much longer shelf life than the majority of your peers. Since the turn of the century, the safety position has produced more Pro Bowlers beyond the age of 30 than every other defensive position. And star safeties like Charles Woodson, Ed Reed, Rod Woodson, Brian Dawkins, John Lynch and Darren Sharper were effective well into their mid- to late 30s. 

Health is hardly a factor

Berry lost a large portion of his 2014 season, first as a result of a high ankle sprain and later after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. But he kicked cancer's ass and was back on the football field to start the 2015 season, and he didn't appear to miss a beat last year. 

He tied a career high with 10 passes defended while earning a top-five positional grade overall and in coverage from Pro Football Focus, missing just 60 snaps all season. Yeah, less than a year after being diagnosed with cancer, the dude took part in over 95 percent of his team's snaps. 

Most safety Pro Bowl nods since 2010
1. Earl Thomas5
2. Eric Berry4
2. Kam Chancellor4
4. Eric Weddle3
4. Charles Woodson3
Pro Football Reference

That earned Berry his second first-team All-Pro nod and his third Pro Bowl in a four-year span, with the only blip coming in 2014. Beyond that spoiled season, the Tennessee product has missed just one game over that four-year stretch. 

But 2014 happened, and he wasn't healthy even before running into unimaginable bad luck. And he did tear his left ACL early in the 2011 season. So health could play a small role here, but it still seems the good will outweigh that. And this is still a guy who has played virtually every snap in four of his six seasons. 


2015 was no fluke

Nowadays, you see a lot of guys getting paid big bucks based on a single breakout season. I fear, for example, that the Washington Redskins are giving $15 million a year to a potential one-hit wonder in Josh Norman. And even Smith, who is the league's highest-paid safety without a franchise tag, is only coming off his first Pro Bowl season. 

Eric Berry vs. Harrison Smith
PFF grade44.644.0
Pro Bowls40
All-Pro nods21
Pro Football Reference/Spotrac

But Berry has been here, done this. He was also PFF's second-ranked safety both overall and in coverage in 2013, and he made the Pro Bowl with a PFF grade of 7.5 (16th among qualified safeties) as a rookie in 2010. 

Smith might have slightly more tread on his tires, but he's Berry's age and has a substantially weaker resume. I don't know how the Chiefs could rationalize giving Berry any less money than Smith received from the Vikings. 

For another precedent, we can look to Earl Thomas, who came into the league with Berry and has one more Pro Bowl and one more All-Pro nod than him. Thomas also hadn't missed a game in his career when he signed a four-year, $40 million extension in 2014 (and he still hasn't), and he was younger than Berry. 

But Berry came into the league making more than $8 million a year, so anything less than the $10 million annual salary the Seahawks gave Thomas two years ago would be shocking. Keep in mind that the salary cap has increased by about 17 percent in that span, which means that Thomas would be worth closer to $12 million a year in 2016 terms. 

My prediction for Berry? Something right in between those numbers. A five-year, $55 million contract with about $30 million guaranteed makes sense. 

That would, in every respect, make Berry the highest-paid safety in the game. When you're 27 and coming off another All-Pro season and your contract is up, that just makes sense. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.


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