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In a world Eric Berry can’t go, there’s a plan at safety

As we go into Week 1, let’s pull together all the threads of the Eric Berry situation.

NFL: New York Jets at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Berry’s heel weighs heavily on the minds of Kansas City Chiefs fans this week.

It’s not just that Berry — when he has been on the field — is a next-level contributor to defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s defense. It’s that when Berry has been absent from the field, the Chiefs defense has been measurably less effective — as Craig Stout noted in his outstanding article about how the Chiefs value versatility in their defensive safeties:

The Chiefs pass defense has thrived with versatile safeties in Sutton’s tenure in Kansas City, only finishing once outside of the top 13 in DVOA (last year) and only twice outside of the top seven (both years Eric Berry was injured).

So as the season opener looms — and concerns about the defensive secondary linger after the veritable tornado of moves the Chiefs made at positions including cornerback and safety around last weekend’s roster cutdown — it’s completely understandable that a humble writer like myself might compose Tuesday’s Chiefs Haiku:

You’re not seeing the daily Chiefs Haiku? That’s just one of the reasons you should follow me on Twitter. Others include my effervescent personality — not to mention my daily drawing, in which a lucky Twitter follower is chosen to help a Nigerian prince recover millions of dollars from a US bank account.

But I digress.

So it came to pass that Wednesday’s press appearances at Arrowhead included lots of inquiries about Eric Berry’s readiness to play — not only this Sunday, but also in the weeks to come.

As our in-house medical expert Aaron Borgman noted in his rundown of Chiefs sports medicine VP Rick Burkholder’s turn before the cameras, there was no real news about Berry; he is still day-to-day with soreness in his heel. (For the umpteenth time, we remind you that this is not the same foot in which he had the Achilles injury in Week 1 of 2017).

Head coach Andy Reid also drove this point home.

“We’ve kept great communication with [Berry],” Reid said. “He’s letting us know he’s improving — which is the most important thing — and he’s done a great deal of work today. Let’s see how it goes. We’ve done that to this point, and will continue to do it. If he’s ready, he’s ready. If he’s not, then we go a different direction and roll with that.”

To be clear, both Burkholder and Reid emphasized that the work Berry is doing isn’t on the practice field, but with the Chiefs training and medical staff, where Burkholder said Berry is improving every day.

Reid said that the final decision on whether Berry would play on Sunday would be up to him.

“We’ll see if he can practice, and go from there,” Reid explained. “I want to see what he’s got — if and when he does that. I’ll make the decision from what I see there.”

This would suggest that a decision made this week might have to be made before the Chiefs decamp to Los Angeles for their game against the Chargers. But as tight end Travis Kelce noted on Wednesday, we should probably still expect Berry to make the trip — whether he is going to play or not.

“I have all the faith in the world in what coach Sutton and everyone is doing over on that side of the ball,” Kelce said. “They’ve got great leadership over there. Even if Eric isn’t ready to play — or not able to play — he’s still out there being a coach, and making sure the guys are ready to go.”

So this begs the question: if Berry is unable to play this weekend — or after — how will the Chiefs deal with it? Last season, Daniel Sorensen was listed as Berry’s backup, and stepped in alongside Ron Parker — who has just returned to the Chiefs after being cut in a cap-saving move in February.

But Sorensen is also unavailable due to an injury, and since he is now on injured reserve, cannot return until after Week 8 — even though Burkholder said on Wednesday that he might be ready to play before then.

This would seem to ensure that Parker would start if Berry doesn’t go. But Reid said that Parker might start even if Berry is ready to go, saying, ”there are a couple of different personnel packages” the Chiefs could use at safety.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The packages to which Reid alluded could include Chiefs veteran Eric Murray — whom our own Matt Lane profiled in June as a player to watch this season.

[Murray] could be an upgrade over the safety play seen for much of last year, and could form a solid pairing with Eric Berry. Having both out on the field would allow for seamless transitions on defense without tipping their hand, or scrambling to flip the field as offenses go through pre-snap calls.

Or they could include the just-acquired Jordan Lucas, a 2016 sixth-rounder who came to the Chiefs from the Miami Dolphins in last weekend’s flurry of activity. In Kent Swanson’s initial film review, he noted that Lucas has the versatility the Chiefs like to see in their safeties.

Incidentally... this is why — as Craig Stout pointed out in the earlier-referenced article from yesterday — the Chiefs didn’t go after some the big-name safeties that have appeared in recent months.

A safety like Tre Boston (a free agent this past offseason) would have been a tough fit into the Chiefs defense. While he could play the deep safety role that is one part of the Chiefs defense, he didn’t have the ability to play the other two phases of the game that Sutton employs.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

That brings us to the other safety: Armani Watts.

Proclaimed as one of the draft’s clutch players, the fourth-round pick from Texas A&M got a lot of snaps in the preseason — and shined in the final game against the Green Bay Packers, snagging two interceptions. In Kent Swanson’s May film review, he noted that Watts — while unquestionably possessing the instincts that made him a popular pick in the draft — didn’t come out of college with the skills to tackle consistently in space. This would suggest that Watts might not yet have the versatility the Chiefs will want to see in him.

Still... Watts could be learning fast.

I believe you could see rapid growth from Watts, as he now has a chance to make football a full-time job. The more he sees and processes, the quicker the instincts can take over. As he adds more gigabytes to his football database, he’ll make strides. Watts appears on tape to be a smart player. He doesn’t look like someone who will be fooled twice. If that’s true, he’s the kind of player that could figure things out quickly.

Bringing all of this together, you could argue that should Eric Berry be unavailable, Murray has the inside track to start alongside Ron Parker, while Lucas and Watts become situational and special teams players — at least for now.

But let’s be clear: what we want to see is a healthy Eric Berry — and Ron Parker — on the field together.

Why? Because these two guys have played together in all five years of Reid and Sutton’s tenure in Kansas City, and have been the starting safeties in the last four.

Lest we forget, Parker was one of the group that play-by-play man Mitch Holthus dubbed The Magnificent Seven — the seven players the Chiefs picked up on waivers immediately after the 2013 cutdown.

Parker spoke of his relationship with Berry on Wednesday.

“When I’m playing with Eric, I don’t have to say anything. We can just make eye contact and know what the other guy is doing. With other guys, we have to communicate more, because we haven’t spent as much time on the field together as Eric and I did. But everything’s coming together. It’s just like riding a bike.

“Eric has been happy to have me back in the building,” he said. “It’s been nothing but love -- from me to him, and him to me.”

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

After Parker’s release during the offseason, it was natural for Chiefs fans to suggest that Parker’s release had more to do with a dropoff in his ability than his cost against the cap. That’s how fans tend to rationalize these kind of moves — and that’s OK. But the speed with which the Chiefs moved to put Parker back on the roster suggested that for the Chiefs, Parker’s release was a more of a move to get short-term cap relief.

Should we believe that Parker has little value to the Chiefs unless Berry is on the field? That is a possibility — that Parker is the Tonto to Berry’s Lone Ranger. (Now that I think about it, since Berry is famously afraid of horses, perhaps that isn’t the best comparison to make. Just in case, let’s go with Parker’s Robin to Berry’s Batman).

But we shouldn’t count out Parker’s leadership role on the field — especially if turns out that in a particular game, Berry can’t be on it. On his first day back, the other players were asking him about the defense.

“From the time I walked in, the guys have been asking questions,” he said on Wednesday. “It seems like they’re trying to figure it out. And there’s no time to wait. It’s a good thing for the young guys to be hungry, and want to go out and get it.”

Parker was clearly excited to be back with the Chiefs — in no small part because he loves playing in Sutton’s defense.

“Bob has so many different jobs and so many different things players in the secondary can do. Being interchangeable, and being able to move around so I can have flexibility in the defense makes it fun for me. I don’t have to sit in one spot. I can be anywhere at any time. That’s the good thing about playing in this defense.”

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