Bears betting on Eddie Jackson bouncing back to Pro Bowl level

As Matt Eberflus sets his defense, he’s counting on Jackson, Robert Quinn, Roquan Smith and Jaylon Johnson to be stars. He’ll have to figure out the rest.

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Eddie Jackson had 15 takeaways over his first three seasons, but just one over the last two.

Eddie Jackson had 15 takeaways over his first three seasons, but just one over the last two.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

PALM BEACH, Fla. — As Bears general manager Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus sorted out which players fit their long-term plans and which needed to be cleared out to gain draft picks and financial flexibility, safety Eddie Jackson’s big contract presented a tough call.

Two years ago, it made perfect sense for the Bears to make Jackson the NFL’s highest-paid safety with a massive contract extension. But the player who earned that deal has gone missing.

There has been less ball-hawking and more business decisions. Tackling has been a major issue. He has been unreliable.

But rather than trade Jackson or cut him to save some salary-cap space, Poles and Eberflus saw an opportunity. At 28, Jackson is still in his prime. He hasn’t lost the athleticism that made him an All-Pro with six interceptions and two touchdowns in 2018. He has the capacity to be great.

The Bears’ move to bring in a new administration that has no attachment to him and no particular self-interest in making his contract look smart might be just what Jackson needed.

“We had a good conversation about this [being] a fresh slate for him, and to just go out there and work and show us what you can do,” Eberflus said at the NFL’s annual meeting. “Sure, you’ve got to run basic plays, but we’ve got to be able to see, for example at that position, can you cover tight ends? Can you cover [running] backs?

“Are you efficient playing half or quarters or playing in the middle of the field? He’s done all those things, but we want to see his skill set now. What is his skill set right now at this time? And we’re excited to do that.”

So it’s not about 2018. And it’s not about 2021. Jackson’s Bears career comes down to whether he can get on board and be a fearsome threat at the back end of the defense.

Eberflus looked at both of those seasons while analyzing Jackson and he’s more interested in his All-Pro tape. If he gets that version of Jackson, he can work with him.

“He’s got really good instincts,” Eberflus said. “You look at the positive — what he can do — and he’s taking the ball away. He’s really proficient at blitzing. I think he times it up well, does a good job there, does a nice job in coverage. So we’ll see where it is.”

The Bears appear to be finished cleansing their roster, and if so, the heart of their defense will be inside linebacker Roquan Smith, pass rusher Robert Quinn and — ideally — Jackson.

Smith is the surest of sure things, and Poles knows it. He didn’t bother playing coy about whether he’ll try to get a contract extension done before the season.

“If he’s the guy that I think he is, that’s something we have to address,” Poles said. “In this defense . . . there’s a good chance he’s going to have a really good year.”

Quinn could have a big season as well and presumably will benefit from moving back to his preferred position at defensive end in Eberflus’ 4-3 defense. Signing with the Bears in 2020 was an odd move for both sides considering their 3-4 would slot him at outside linebacker, and he has said throughout his career that’s not the best place for him to play.

At almost 32 and in line to make $52.6 million over the next three seasons, Quinn certainly was a candidate to trade. The return probably would’ve been good, too, after setting the franchise record with 18.5 sacks last season.

“That hasn’t come up,” Poles said.

Quinn ($17.1 million) and Jackson ($15.1 million) currently carry the Bears’ biggest cap numbers for this season. They’ll be worth it if they’re stars.

Those two, Smith and cornerback Jaylon Johnson are the only certainties. Eberflus needs to know he can count on them. Figuring out the rest is on him.

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