Resilient safety position overcomes adversity

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The Chiefs’ safeties held their own on the back end of coverage and solidified one of the NFL’s best defensive secondaries against the pass.

2014 STRONG SAFETIES: Ron Parker, Kurt Coleman
2014 FREE SAFETIES: Husain Abdullah, Kelcie McCray, Daniel Sorensen
NON-FOOTBALL INJURY LIST: Eric Berry (illness)
INJURED RESERVE: Sanders Commings (ankle)
2015 FREE AGENTS: Kurt Coleman, Chris Owens, Ron Parker, Kelcie McCray (restricted)

POSITION REVIEW

The loss of strong safety Eric Berry, whom the Chiefs placed on the non-football injury list on Nov. 24, 2014 after a mass was discovered in his chest, goes well beyond football. The mass in Berry’s chest was eventually diagnosed as Hodgkin lymphoma on Dec. 8.

While the Chiefs played five games earlier in the season without the All-Pro safety as he recovered from a high ankle sprain, Berry’s illness proved different and the safeties stepped up under very difficult circumstances.

Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Husain Abdullah (39) signals after recovering a fumble by Oakland Raiders' Taiwan Jones during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. At right is Chiefs' Ron Parker (38). (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Husain Abdullah (39) signals after recovering a fumble by Oakland Raiders’ Taiwan Jones during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. At right is Chiefs’ Ron Parker (38). (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

After getting torched by the deep ball against Andrew Luck and the Colts in a disappointing end to the 2013 season, the back end of coverage was a subject of serious concern entering 2014. The Chiefs parted ways with safeties Kendrick Lewis and Quintin Demps, and started over.

Despite depth chart fluctuations, the Chiefs’ safeties proved surprisingly resilient and arguably were a big reason why the Chiefs are the only team in the NFL to not yield a 300-yard passing game or a 50-yard completion in 2014.

Hussain Abdullah proved reliable at free safety in his first season as the team’s starter, ranking third on the team in tackles with 74 (58 solo). Abdullah added an interception returned for a touchdown.

The versatile Ron Parker, who finished second on the team with 94 total tackles (84 solo), appeared to improve his play upon returning to his more natural position at safety in the absence of Berry. Parker’s 84 solo tackles led the team, adding a sack and an interception on the season.

The Chiefs invested heavily in training camp in younger safeties such as underrated rookie Daniel Sorensen, and undrafted rookie free agent out of BYU.

But the team eventually relied on veterans Kurt Coleman, who signed a free-agent deal on Sept. 2, and Kelcie McCray, whom the Chiefs acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for guard Rishaw Johnson on Aug. 21, to provide additional depth.

Coleman led the Chiefs in interceptions with three.

LOOKING AHEAD

Obviously the most significant concerns about Berry have nothing to do with the depth chart or salary cap. Yet, his status for 2015 looms as the biggest question facing the team’s secondary.

Re-signing Parker would seem to be a priority for the Chiefs, given his flexibility and strong play at safety in 2014. A tandem of Abdullah and Parker would be a solid backfield for the Chiefs next season.

Coleman and McCray were stop-gap solutions, and are possible candidates for upgrades. McCray is a restricted free agent the Chiefs can keep by matching any offer.

General manager John Dorsey has shown a willingness to test undrafted free agents at safety during the offseason and training camp, and later turn to affordable backups such as Coleman and McCray if necessary.

The Chiefs also have Sanders Commings, who has spent his first two NFL seasons on injured reserve. It’s now or never for Commings.

The player to watch for improvement would be Sorenson. If he can show improvement and the team is able to re-sign Parker, the Chiefs would have a young, talented safety group, leaving two additional spots to fill through free agency or the draft.

TOUGH DECISION

If Berry is unable to play in 2015 and placed on the non-football injury or illness list, his contract will not count against the salary cap in 2015 and the Chiefs would gain $8.3 million in salary cap relief. However, he would still have one year remaining on his contract if he were to return in 2016.

The Chiefs have a big question to answer if Berry is able to play in 2015. Berry has been a favorite among fans and teammates during his time in Kansas City, and that feeling has been reinforced during his battle with lymphoma.

Making a roster move with Berry would be a public relations nightmare and may prove very unpopular.

But the Chiefs could gain nearly $5.4 million in cap savings by cutting Berry. That is money that may be needed to re-sign Parker and free up resources needed to upgrade the team in other areas.

If Parker is able to get a big free-agent contract on the open market, it may be difficult for the Chiefs to keep Berry with other pressing needs.