By Robert Zeglinski
In the Oliver Stone classic, Wall Street, Martin Sheen’s corrupt union official character Carl Fox has the most poignant of observations in regards to how finance drives our world.
“Money’s only something you need in case you don’t die tomorrow,” Fox muses matter of factly. The point of his blunt statement, is that one needs money to carry on. The fact that his character among a whole cadre of greedy individuals feels this way doesn’t change the sentiment. The almighty dollar is the galvanizing force behind so many motivations, schemes, and plans. The extent of its power could boggle the mind.
In the NFL, aside from steadily growing profit margins, money acts as a catalyst in a different manner. All 32 teams are afforded a set salary cap to which they are allowed to spend as much as possible along a set limit. Some spend to the limit, and these are typically the teams with most of their roster locked in for better or worse. Some horde a good measure of their space, waiting to dive into the open market as necessary. It’s an imperfect means of regulation for competitive balance and parity.
The Bears, after a stellar 12-4 season of which was galvanized by trading for and making Khalil Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, fit the former description. General manager Ryan Pace and company are actively armed with roughly $17 million in cap space, according to cap fanatic resource Over the Cap. With 20 of 22 starters locked in, it’s understandable why Chicago would possess so little space, and why they’d elect to sit back in this year’s free agency. As much as capable pass rushers like Justin Houston would’ve readily made an impact for a contender, the Bears couldn’t reasonably afford giving the 30-year-old almost 70 percent of their salary cap for the next two years. Teams like the Colts could pay Houston, and so they did.
Not pouncing at any big fish in free agency doesn’t make the Bears’ prospect of keeping around core stars around for the long term any less precarious. Sitting back was all about keeping a long-term view for the most incremental pieces of their foundation. Especially when it comes to one certain versatile and instinctive safety.
Eddie Jackson, S
Career statistics: 121 tackles, 21 passes defensed, 8 interceptions, 5 touchdowns, three forced fumbles
The contract that will most loom over the Bears’ heads over the next approximate year or is that of 2018 First-Team All-Pro Eddie Jackson. While we’re still some time away from the Bears and Jackson beginning formal negotiations, leadership at Halas Hall has undoubtedly begun calculating how they’ll be able to afford Jackson through most of his career. It’s the prudent and forward-thinking thing to do.
Through 30 starts in two NFL seasons, Jackson is on a meteoric pace of production most previous Bears defensive backs have never matched. He’s a superstar of the highest order. The answer at safety the Bears have been seeking for a decade-plus as they’ve used largely empty draft pick after draft pick on players who have flamed out in a few seasons at most. As much as Mack is the best player the Bears have at their disposal, Jackson is the underrated backbone to a special defense. He’s the main reason the Bears’ secondary has enjoyed a collective resurgence since 2017.
To keep a player like Jackson around for a good while, means the Bears breaking the bank and playing around as necessary to fit him in. It means making tough decisions like the tenuous futures of Danny Trevathan after the 2019 season. It’s pulling out all the stops as to keep Jackson’s transcendent services around and then figuring everything else out later.
The 26-year-old already has more defensive touchdowns (5) than hometown legend Mike Brown (4) did over the course of his entire career. He’s already more than halfway to Charles Tillman’s Bears career mark of nine. It took Tillman 122 starts to record his nine scores, and he didn’t enjoy his first end zone dance until his third season. From an NFL-wide glance, Jackson was voted a First-Team All-Pro faster than some of his previously more famous peers like the Ravens’ Earl Thomas (third season) and Vikings’ Harrison Smith (sixth season). While his advanced age certainly plays a role in maturity in the latter statement, it shouldn’t detract from the quickly gathered and impressive resume Jackson’s already compiled.
Most notably, Jackson’s adjusted career value through two years (20) is right on track with Thomas (18). It even surpasses the man he’s garnered plenty of comparisons to lately in First-Ballot Hall of Famer Ed Reed (18). It’s a word that’s thrown around too much but is perfectly apt in describing Jackson: A borderline generational player the Bears are fortunate to have patrolling their back line.
To say Jackson has blazed his own trails would be an understatement. To say Jackson is a pioneer in his own right would be ignorant as to how fast he’s mastered his craft. No active safety, let alone any defensive back, generates turnovers like Jackson does at the moment (11 in two seasons). The only safety that can match Jackson’s respective pass coverage range is the 29-year-old Thomas, and he’s coming off a broken leg.
What this boils down to is the NFL’s most-feared ballhawk only getting started with his romp on football at large. Jackson is now entering his physical prime, and it should be a harkening warning to the rest of the league and every quarterback who dares test him. His accomplishments are also more than mere accomplishments: They’re comfortable negotiation bars he can stack favorably to his benefit.
The only roadblock to Jackson not receiving the pay day he deserves would be in him seeing a steep drop off in production. That and his advanced age by the time any extension starts. Most 28-year-old star players, when Jackson would theoretically start an extension, aren’t signing record-breaking deals because of fear for their longevity. Seeing as how the Bears’ ravenous pass rush should be among pro football’s best for a little while, it’ll be difficult for Jackson to miss out on many game-changing plays. Not that he needs it by any means. The defining factor about players like Jackson is that even where there seemingly isn’t an opening or field-tilting play to be made, he makes it anyway. As far as worries in regards to age, Jackson should carry on well regardless of his play suffering a slight dip past the golden age of 30. Players like him are built to last.
With two years left rookie contract signed back in 2017, Jackson will cash in sooner rather than later. It behooves the Bears to get out in front of his situation and negotiate in good faith with one of their most important players. They won’t entertain the idea to any degree, but letting a talent like Jackson remotely sniff the open market is asking for trouble. If Washington’s Landon Collins can receive the most guaranteed money ($44 million) and total sum of a contract ($84 million) for a safety ever, Jackson’s coming reward should be astronomical. Figure his age into the equation and a five-year, $75 million deal with $40 million guaranteed is more than fair. That would give him the highest ever AAV for a safety ever, which will be a goal in this process, while maintaining a palatable commitment for the Bears.
By some measure, Jackson’s going to be the highest-paid safety in league history. It’s better the Bears save as much as flexibility as possible and plan out their finances in advance for a player like him. For his skill-set, he’s going to want a blank check.
If money’s something you need immediately, nothing says the Bears can’t or shouldn’t give it to him.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.