Eric Berry

Seven best NFL free agents still available right now heavy on defense

Seven best NFL free agents still available right now heavy on defense

The biggest fish have been reeled in, but there still are plenty left to catch in NFL free agency. 

That's good news for the 49ers and the Raiders. Although San Francisco and Oakland were two of the most active teams at the official start of the league year Wednesday, both still have some clear needs to address this offseason. 

The Raiders could use a backup quarterback, and their NFL-worst pass rush has gone unaddressed over a month out from the NFL draft. Meanwhile, the 49ers largely stood pat in the secondary, despite bringing back Jimmie Ward and Antone Exum.

So, which players could fill those aforementioned holes on either side of the Bay (or both)? Here are seven players who still are available in free agency and could make a big impact in the 2019 season. 

VIEW THE BEST REMAINING NFL FREE AGENTS HERE

Why 49ers should consider signing former Chiefs safety Eric Berry

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USATSI

Why 49ers should consider signing former Chiefs safety Eric Berry

The 49ers need help in the secondary, and upon the new league year, the Chiefs released veteran safety Eric Berry. He could provide instant leadership and competition in San Francisco's young secondary. 

The fifth overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft, Berry has been a first-team All-Pro three times and was selected to five Pro Bowls. He has, however, been hampered by injuries after a successful return from fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

Berry has played in just three games over the past two seasons. In 2018, he dealt with a heel injury called Haglund’s deformity. It occurs when a bone spur has contact with and causes pain in the Achilles tendon. He sat out most of the 2017 season due to a ruptured Achilles.

Outside of the injuries, the Chiefs will save over $15 million over the next two years by releasing Berry. He had signed a six-year, $78 million contract in 2017 after getting hit with the franchise tag in 2016. 

The Chiefs also agreed to terms with Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu in a three-year, $42 million deal, which made moving forward without Berry inevitable. 

Berry is not just valuable when he's on the field. He would be a strong presence in the 49ers' locker room, which is the type of player general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan look to add. Berry earned the Kansas City's Derrick Thomas Award in 2015 and 2016, given to the team’s most valuable player, voted on by his teammates.

Berry also might be willing to agree to a short-term "prove-it" deal as a result of his injuries. 

The 49ers already have a few players who need to get healthy before seeing the field, but Berry, like cornerback Richard Sherman, could provide another coach and mentor for the young secondary while also providing competition to a group that includes Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert and Marcell Harris.

[RELATED: 49ers target Earl Thomas reportedly heading to Ravens]

Berry played in 89 games in nine seasons with the Chiefs. His career numbers include 440 tackles of which 372 were solo, 5.5 sacks, 14 interceptions, 51 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

In huge season-opening win, Chiefs lose All-Pro safety for 2017 season

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AP

In huge season-opening win, Chiefs lose All-Pro safety for 2017 season

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- One of the biggest season-opening wins in Chiefs history came at the expense of their All-Pro safety.

Eric Berry ruptured his left Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter of Thursday night's 42-27 victory over the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, not only ending his season but leaving the Chiefs without one of the most visible and vocal leaders on their defense.

"You're not going to replace Eric Berry with another Eric Berry. That's not what happens," said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who confirmed the team's initial fears in a conference call Friday. "But the guys know that Eric would be disappointed if they left off the accelerator at all. I think we'll be OK there."

Berry was hurt while covering Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on a passing route. He hobbled at the end of the play and promptly sat on the turf, where the team's training staff began examining him. Berry did not appear to be in obvious discomfort, but it took a cart to remove him from the field.

The Chiefs have dealt with a rash of Achilles tendon injuries in recent years, including two sustained by Derrick Johnson. The star linebacker's latest occurred late last season, but he managed to return to the field by summer workouts and was a full participant in training camp.

Berry also has a history of overcoming serious hurdles in his career.

He missed most of the 2011 season after tearing the ACL in his left knee, only to start 16 games the following season. He also missed the final 10 games of the 2014 regular season while undergoing treatment for lymphoma, only to return to training camp and again play all 16 games the following season.

Berry was coming off arguably his best year in 2016, when he made 77 tackles, picked off four passes and returned two for touchdowns. He almost single-handedly won a game in Atlanta, and was a big reason why the Chiefs went 12-4 and won their first AFC West title since 2010.

His performance while playing under the franchise tag earned him a $78 million, six-year contract this past offseason, making Berry the highest-paid safety in the league.

"I'm on a bit of a low right now," Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said. "I love him to death. He's our fearless leader, and to see him go down in the first game breaks your heart."

The Chiefs are deep at safety, though. Eric Murray played well after Berry left the game, while Daniel Sorenson - who fulfills multiple roles in the defense - could also play the position.

The game Thursday night also gives the Chiefs some extra time to assess options before playing their home opener against Philadelphia on Sept. 17. Reid said he expected new general manager Brett Veach to scour the waiver wire and inquire about safeties outside the organization as well.

"Brett's keeping his eyes open for things right now. That's what he does," Reid said. "He's always on top of that. We're just kind of seeing the different options there."

In the meantime, Reid said he expects Berry to continue to have a role on the team.

He broke down the defensive huddle even after leaving the game Thursday night, providing some energy for them when the outcome was still hanging in the balance, and Reid joked that Berry might get a head-start on a potential post-playing career by auditioning as an assistant coach.

"He had an opportunity to talk to the team last night after the game," Reid said, "and I know he'd be very disappointed if anybody hung their head or let that be an issue. And I thought the guys handled it very well after Eric got hurt. Our guys were able to kind of muster it up and keep the emotional football part of it in focus there."