— After 13 seasons in Kansas City that will one day lead to the club etching his name in the club’s ring of honor inside Arrowhead Stadium, linebacker Derrick Johnson said goodbye on Tuesday to the only NFL team he’s ever known.
“I’m grateful I had the opportunity to spend 13 years in a place I love,” Johnson said in a team statement announcing he will enter the free agent market. “I plan on playing for several more years because I love this game so much, but I look forward to retiring as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs when my career is over.”
Johnson’s career in Kansas City ends with him credited as the team’s all-time leading tacker. The club lists him 1,262 career tackles including 993 solo tackles. The team lists Gary Spani second in club history with 999 total tackles.
CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry earlier this week reported that language in Johnson’s contract would make him a free agent in March. Specifically, if Johnson remains on the team’s 90-man roster on March 14, the final year of his contract would void. Johnson signed a renegotiated contract last offseason that reduced his salary to $1 million.
Johnson will count $2.25 million toward the team’s 2018 salary cap. That covers the $3.5 million prorated bonus he received as part of the renegotiated contracted.
The team’s front office lavished accolades on Johnson in the announcement that he would become a free agent, including head coach Andy Reid.
“I’m grateful I had the opportunity to coach a player like Derrick,” Reid said in the statement. “He’s a passionate football player and a natural leader. I value the amount of quality work he put in every day for us, including teaching our younger players what it means to be a pro. I think he will make an incredible coach when he is done playing the game, if he chooses.”
Club chairman and CEO Clark Hunt, the one constant during Johnson’s tenure in Kansas City, said few players have meant more to the franchise and the community.
“His tireless work ethic and passion for the game made him one of the most productive defensive players to ever wear a Chiefs uniform and one of the most respected players both in our locker room and around the league,” Hunt said. “Over the last 13 seasons, Derrick represented himself and the Chiefs organization with integrity and class, and he will always be a part of our Chiefs family.”
While the contract language makes Johnson a free agent, the Chiefs could re-sign him. However, general manager Brett Veach’s statement suggests that course appear unlikely.
“Letting go of a player like Derrick is particularly tough because of how much respect I have for him as a player and as a person,” Veach said. “He’s had a tremendous career here in Kansas City, and we wish him nothing but the best moving forward.”
Johnson hinted at his departure from Kansas City following the team’s Wild Card playoff loss to Tennessee. The veteran expressed his interest in continuing his career, but acknowledged he didn’t know where he may take his talents next season.
“I’m definitely playing ball again,” Johnson said. “That’s not a question. But it’s not the time to talk about where I’m going to be playing. I’m a Chief. I’ve been in this league 13 years. Opportunities like this don’t come around a lot.”