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Free-agent contracts loom for Chiefs’ foundation players

The status of contract negotiations for quarterback Alex Smith and outside linebacker Justin Houston remains unknown as training camp nears. The pair are currently in the final years of respective contracts and scheduled to hit the free-agent market in 2015 unless the Chiefs extend their deals.

Beyond Smith and Houston, however, other major contract discussions are sure to surround a quintet of impact playmakers.

Running back Jamaal Charles, defensive tackle Dontari Poe, strong safety Eric Berry, and linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali are among the Chiefs’ list of potential 2016 free agents, according to Spotrac.com. 

While two years away from expiring deals, it’s not too early to offer an overview of the players considering their importance to the team’s foundation. The upcoming training camp is arguably where these five storylines will begin to unfold and each situation warrants close monitoring as the players progress toward 2016.

Here are speculative developments to keep in mind, including projected cap hits via Spotrac.com that could play a role in each player’s future with the team:

Oct 20, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali (91) sacks Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum (7) at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 20, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali (91) sacks Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum (7) at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Tamba Hali, OLB
Age: 30
All-Pro seasons: 2011, 2013 (second-team both seasons)
2015 cap hit: $11.9 million
Odd of re-signing with Chiefs: Low
Potential replacements on roster: Dee Ford

Though Hali has recorded double-digit sacks in three of the last four seasons, chances are his next deal won’t be with the Chiefs.

He turns 31 in November and is scheduled to earn an average of $11.7 million per year for the remainder of his contract.

The Chiefs chose former Auburn defensive end Dee Ford with the 23rd overall pick in May’s draft. The selection signaled the team is likely preparing for Hali’s probable departure.

Ford, who projects at outside linebacker for the Chiefs, demonstrated throughout OTAs his elite talent, which drew public praise from Hali.

“He gets off the ball so fast it’s scary,” Hali told reporters in June. “I just kept rewinding (the video) yesterday just looking at his first step. I don’t know if he times it, but his first step is incredible.”

The initial forecast for Ford’s role this season is as a situational pass rusher. He could become a starter in 2015 if the team opts to relieve itself of Hali’s scheduled $11.9 million cap hit. That move could aid the team in finalizing extensions for Berry and/or Charles.

Sep 15, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) looks to the crowd at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 15, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) looks to the crowd at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick Johnson, ILB
Age: 31
All-Pro seasons: 2011
2015 cap hit: $5.3 million
Odds of re-signing with Chiefs: Moderate
Potential replacements on roster: Nico Johnson

Johnson tallied 4.5 sacks last season, which tied a career-best from his sophomore 2006 campaign.

He also led the Chiefs defense in pass coverage with a cumulative grade of 13.9, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

The 10th-year veteran, who has averaged 121 total tackles per season since 2010, continues to defy the aging process. If he maintains his level of play, the team will face a tough decision on his future beyond 2015.

Aside from his effectiveness in all aspects of the game, Johnson is a vocal leader on defense and he’ll be difficult to replace.

Backup Nico Johnson has yet to flash starter potential. He’ll have to outperform free-agent acquisition Joe Mays for the starting job. Of note, Mays’ contract also expires in 2016.

These factors point to the Chiefs possibly targeting inside linebackers in next year’s draft or signing a free-agent veteran like the team has done in two straight offseasons, first with Akeem Jordan in 2013, and then Mays in March.

The team may also lean to offering Johnson a cap-friendly extension that ensures he retires as a Chief.

Oct 27, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Jason Campbell (17) is sacked by Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe (92) at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 27, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Jason Campbell (17) is sacked by Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe (92) at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Dontari Poe, DT
Age: 24
All-Pro Seasons: 2013 (second team)
2015 cap hit: $3.6 million
Odds of re-signing with Chiefs: High
Potential replacements on roster: None

Poe has a rare blend of power, size and athleticism that would make him a coveted free agent. But it’s not likely he’ll ever hit the market.

All rookies sign four-year contracts, per the Collective Bargaining Agreement adopted in 2011.

However, with regard to those selected in the first round, teams have the option to extend that contract to a fifth year.

Poe is a former first-round pick entering his third season, making it’s likely the Chiefs will exercise his fifth-year option in 2016. From there, the team and Poe could begin work toward a new deal.

Poe earned second-team All-Pro honors and his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2013 after registering 44 tackles and 4.5 sacks. If he sustains that production, it’s difficult to imagine the Chiefs not making him one of the league’s highest-paid defensive tackles.

December 15, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Eric Berry (29) celebrates after an interception against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

December 15, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Eric Berry (29) celebrates after an interception against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Berry, S
Age: 25
All-Pro seasons: 2013
2015 cap hit: $8.4 million
Odds of re-signing with Chiefs: Moderate /High
Potential Replacements on roster: Sanders Commings

Berry’s average-per-year salary is $8.3 million, which ranks third among safeties. Seattle’s Earl Thomas ranks first with $10 million per year.

Berry feels there is little difference in what he and other elite safeties bring to the game.

“There’s not a lot of guys at my position that can do what I do,” Berry told reporters in April. “There’s a lot of guys that can’t blitz, there’s a lot of guys that can’t cover tight ends, there’s a lot of guys that can’t cover the deep middle. I just happen to be one of the guys that can do all that.”

There’s arguably no other strong safety of Berry’s caliber on the roster. Therefore, he’d have considerable leverage in negotiations for an extension.

Still, the team could begin grooming a successor such as second-year safety Sanders Commings.

Commings, healthy after missing virtually his entire rookie season to a collarbone fracture, is competing with Husain Abdullah at free safety. Chiefs general manager John Dorsey endorsed Commings’ ability to handle the job.

“One of the reasons we drafted Sanders Commings is we thought he fit that positional skill,” Dorsey told the media in March.

Coach Andy Reid is also excited over Commings based on what the second-year pro did in OTAs and minicamp.

“He’s one of the ones I really am looking forward to seeing up at camp once we are able to hit,” Reid told reporters on the final day of minicamp. “Sanders, we sure liked what we saw in shorts, just have to see how it looks with pads on.”

Commings possesses 4.41 40-yard dash speed and is 6-feet, 223 pounds. He could emerge as a prime candidate to replace Berry if he eventually wins the free safety competition and thrives.

In that scenario, the Chiefs would have some leverage and might entertain trade offers for Berry.

However, if Commings’ development is stagnant the Chiefs could prioritize the position in the 2015 draft while working with Berry toward a new contract.

Dec 15, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (25) against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 15, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (25) against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Jamaal Charles, RB
Age: 27
All-Pro seasons: 2010, 2012 (second-team), 2013
2015 cap hit: $7.3 million
Odds of re-signing with Chiefs: Moderate
Potential replacements on roster: Knile Davis

Charles’ contract pays him $4.6 million per year, a figure that ranks 12th among running backs. Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams makes $8.6 million per year, which ranks fourth.

But unlike Charles, Williams hasn’t rushed for more than 1,000 yards in any of the last three seasons.

Therefore, Charles could demand $9 million per year, a figure that would tie Eagles rusher LeSean MCoy for second place behind Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who makes $13 million per year.

However, there are two critical factors working against Charles, with the first being age.

The age that running backs tend to peak before declining is 27, according to research by ESPN and ProFootballFocus.com. Charles turns 28 in December.

The other factor is Charles’ backup Knile Davis, the team’s third-round selection in the 2013 draft. Davis, 22, flashed the potential last season to start in the future.

He tallied 87 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers in Week 17. He then posted 80 total yards and two scores in a wildcard loss to the Colts after Charles was concussed in the first quarter.

Coach Andy Reid hinted earlier in the offseason on two separate occasions Davis’ role might be expanded.

“Knile was a rookie and he was learning every week and getting better every week,” Reid told reporters at the NFL combine in February. “ As the season went on we were able to give him the ball a little bit more. Coming into this season we’ll be able to mix it up a little bit better than what we did early in the season last year.”

There are basically two ways Davis could impact Charles’ future with the Chiefs:

1. Davis prolongs Charles’ effectiveness by taking on more of the workload, which exposes Charles to less wear and tear. This could prompt the Chiefs to offer Charles a new deal.

2. Davis’ progress eventually makes Charles expendable. It might also move the team to gauge Charles’ trade value.

Though the second outcome may seem unfathomable to some, remember the NFL is a business. Teams are trending more toward prioritizing their future than rewarding declining veterans for past production.