‘Being free’ could help Bears safety Eddie Jackson reassert himself as dangerous defender

The combination of an advantageous scheme, newcomer Jaquan Brisker and Jackson’s eagerness give him a shot to prove he’s worth big money this season and beyond.

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A photo of Bears safety Eddie Jackson playing against the Seahawks last season.

Jackson had 10 interceptions over his first three seasons, but none since.

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When the new staff took over the Bears and scrutinized a roster that went 6-11 and got everyone fired, it was fairly easy to sort out which players had the potential to be contributors on the next good team and which ones needed to go.

But safety Eddie Jackson was one of the few who didn’t obviously fit either category.

His future, with the Bears and as an NFL star, is up in the air. What he does this season, at 28, will determine his course in both regards.

And in a new defensive scheme under coach Matt Eberflus and coordinator Alan Williams, Jackson feels like that’s fully in his hands. The biggest difference is “being free” and empowered to be aggressive in the secondary.

The Bears freed up Jackson for that role in part by drafting thumping Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker in the second round. While at first it seemed they must have picked him with an eye toward replacing Jackson, perhaps they were being honest when they predicted the duo would be a perfect fit.

“When I say ‘free,’ I mean in more of a free-safety role, being a guy that’s roaming in the post,” Jackson said. “I was down in the box a lot last year, and, trust me, I love it, but I just love getting the ball, getting interceptions, scoring touchdowns. Those types of things.”

Those types of things would be very welcome.

The Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways in 2018, including seven from Jackson. They plunged to 19 in 2019 (22nd in the league), 18 in 2020 (25th) and 16 last season (26th).

That’s a troubling trend for Eberflus, whose Colts were second in the league over the last four seasons with 107 takeaways. Jackson, more so than anyone else on the roster except possibly defensive end Robert Quinn, has a track record that suggests he’ll be an asset in that facet.

And to Jackson’s credit, he wants to be. He reported to every voluntary practice in the offseason and bought into the new system as he looked to bury the last two frustrating seasons and relaunch himself as one of the NFL’s most dangerous defenders.

“Some people have a special talent to get to the football, and we definitely don’t want to suppress that,” safeties coach Andre Curtis said. “So within our defensive structure, [we] just allow him some freedoms to do his job and to go make plays when he sees something.

“Really good guys can see the opportunities present themselves within the flow of a game, then they go make plays. We definitely don’t want to coach the instincts and the playmaking stuff out of Eddie.”

Instead, the Bears hope to maximize it.

Brisker already is helping with that, and he and Jackson have bonded on and off the field.

“I’m excited just to see what he’s capable of doing and just to see the type of dog he has in him,” Jackson said. “He’s a feisty guy. He wants to hit every play. To have a guy like that is exciting.”

And helpful.

With so much in his favor, it’s time for Jackson to reassert himself as an essential part of the defense.

He is the Bears’ second-most expensive player with a $15.1 million salary-cap hit, and that’s a bargain if they rediscover the takeaway machine he was in his first three seasons. He had 10 interceptions, four forced fumbles and five touchdowns from 2017 through ’19 and was an All-Pro in ’18.

General manager Ryan Poles would be happy to keep paying for that.

If it’s more of the same from the last two seasons, however, when Jackson played 1,846 snaps without a pick and had issues with tackling, it’ll be an easy call for Poles to bail on the remaining two years and $35.2 million on his contract.

But, really, that decision is Jackson’s.

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