Chiefs' career tackles leader Johnson to become free agent
(AP) -- Derrick Johnson's tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs is coming to an end.
The franchise's career tackles leader and a four-time Pro Bowl selection, Johnson will become a free agent when his contract expires at the start of the new league year March 14. He intends to keep playing, it just won't be in the familiar red, yellow and white of the Chiefs.
"I love Kansas City and this fan base. They've always had my back," Johnson said in a statement put out by the Chiefs, who made the rare decision to announce publicly that Johnson would not be returning.
That in itself speaks volumes to how much Johnson has meant to the organization.
"I'm grateful I had the opportunity to spend 13 years in a place I love," he said. "I plan on playing for several more years because I love the game so much, but I look forward to retiring as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs when my career is over."
Johnson was the Chiefs' first-round pick in 2005, though his career got off to a rocky start. At one point early on, he found himself riding the bench, and was even labeled a bust.
But Johnson eventually earned his starting job back, and went on to appear in 182 games with 169 starts. He piled up 1,262 tackles to easily shatter the franchise record, had 27+ sacks and picked off 14 passes, returning four of them for touchdowns.
He had a career-best 179 tackles in 2011, when he was voted the Chiefs' team MVP.
"Few players in recent history have meant more to the Chiefs franchise and the Kansas City community than Derrick Johnson," Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said.
"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.
"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."
Johnson piled up his impressive stats despite missing part of two seasons with ruptured Achilles tendons. He returned from the first one as good as ever, earning his most recent Pro Bowl trip in 2015, but the second seemed to finally take a step out of his legs this past season.
He slowly lost playing time to younger teammates in the middle of the Kansas City defense.
"I'm grateful I had the opportunity to coach a player like Derrick," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said in a 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."
The Chiefs have been trying to get younger the past couple of seasons, particularly on defense, and Johnson is unlikely to be the last veteran to go. Fellow linebacker Tamba Hali has been dealing with bad knees for years, and the Chiefs are expected to release him in the coming weeks.
Johnson signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension in 2016, but he had restructured the deal a year ago to help the Chiefs free up salary cap space. In doing so, he voided the final year, and that made it simple for the Chiefs to move on.
His loss will be felt not only on the field, but in the locker room and community. Johnson often served as a team spokesman, always showing up at his locker to speak with reporters regardless of whether the team was winning or losing. And the role he played in mentoring young players, such as linebackers Reggie Ragland and Ukeme Eligwe, should help the organization for years to come.
"Letting go of a player like Derrick is particularly tough because of how much respect I have for him as a player and a person," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. "He's had a tremendous career in Kansas City and we wish him nothing but the best moving forward."
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Updated February 13, 2018