Eric Berry could barely speak when the Kansas City Chiefs selected him with the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night.
Historical significance perhaps? Nope, just laryngitis.
“I’m going to be a Chief baby,” a hoarse Berry was overheard saying as he spoke on his cell phone with the Chiefs. “I’m very excited. I would lose my voice, but I don’t have a voice to lose.”
Berry’s pick was monumental on multiple fronts. First, he was just the sixth University of Tennessee player picked in the top five of the draft since 1940, and the first since the Baltimore Ravens selected tailback Jamal Lewis in 2000.
Moreover, Berry was only the fifth safety selected in the top five since 1980.
As high as Berry’s selection was, there was talk that it could have been even higher.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were considered a strong player for Berry, but they selected former Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with pick No. 3.
Next, the Washington Redskins were rumored to have late interest with the fourth pick, but that must have been a typical draft smokescreen. They selected Oklahoma offensive tackle Trent Williams when no other team called their bluff.
Berry walked to the podium in New York and shared an embrace with former UT defensive tackle Dan Williams (who was later selected with the 26th pick by the Arizona Cardinals) before standing in front of the throng of fans and media assembled at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Even without a strong voice, it was obvious Berry was ready to begin his professional career.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for all of my life, man,” Berry said on the NFL Network. “Just to come here. Come to the draft. Play in the NFL. I love it. I’m loving it. I’m loving it.”
When asked what the Chiefs should expect, Berry said, “They should expect everything, expect a hard worker, a leader. Somebody that’s going to represent on and off the field. Somebody that wants to win championships. Let’s go to work baby. I’m ready.”
He better be. The Chiefs were 4-12 last season under first-year general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley. Kansas City was 31st overall in total defense and 22nd in pass defense.
“Eric has the characteristics we’re looking for,’’ Haley told The Kansas City Star. ‘’The captain of his college team. Extremely productive. Loves football. That’s clear when you’re around him for any period of time. Competitive. He’ll come in here and amp the competition up, and not just the secondary but all areas.”
Berry’s versatility was a strong selling point. He played cornerback in 2007, a roaming free safety in 2008 and then a run-stopping strong safety in 2009.
“He’s a physical player,” Haley said. “He looks for contact. I don’t think he’s afraid to make big plays. He’s versatile. He has the ability to cover, and in the division we’re in, we’ve got to cover tight ends and receivers and backs.
“That’s one of the big positives with him is that he does have some position flexibility, so to speak. He’s shown the ability to cover in man-to-man situations, and he’s a very good down-in-the-box hitter, and he’s been real good in the back end out in the open field. On top of that, he looks like he has a little knack for pressuring the quarterback.’’
There was some slight drama shortly after Berry was selected. The first interview came from former NFL great Deion Sanders, who Berry said refused to give him an autograph while in high school. That led to a recently publicized riff between the two.
“We cool,” Berry said. “You (recently) gave me my autograph. It took me four years, but I got it. You know you’re a legend. I appreciate everything. I appreciate you paving the way for us as DB’s. You put us on the map.”
Berry should still have an impact on the remainder of the draft even though he was the first UT player selected. The Vols still figure prominently into the weekend with a handful of highly thought of prospects.
“I think in the long run, he’s helped himself,” former UT quarterback Jonathan Crompton said on Thursday, “but he’s helped everybody on our team.”
On Lane: Berry was surely helped by a coaching staff that UT fans would rather forget. Former coach Lane Kiffin’s many ties to the NFL — most notably his father, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin — gave NFL executives a trusted, worthy scout of the All-American.
“He just swears by the kid,” ESPN’s Chris Mortenson said of Monte Kiffin on Thursday morning on the News Sentinel’s radio show, The Sports Page.
“If you were going to identify three or four players in which you say ‘I will bet my mortgage that this guy is going to be a Pro Bowl player.’ Eric Berry would be one of them.
“I think the guy is a can’t miss. And there are a lot of others in this league that think the guy is a can’t-miss player.”
Including the Chiefs.