Bears 2020 vision: Safety dance? If they want to, they can leave their friends behind
If everything went right for the Bears in 2018, their subsequent handling of the safety position epitomizes how even their most celebrated moves last offseason went awry.
The signing of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to a one-year, $3 million deal to replace the far more expensive Adrian Amos and reunite All Pro Eddie Jackson with his ex-Alabama teammate appeared on the surface a master stroke by Ryan Pace.
Instead, pairing two natural free safeties prevented either from fulfilling his playmaking potential, essentially the theme for the entire defense under Chuck Pagano in Year 1, when the Bears remained darn good but weren't nearly as dynamic.
Jackson and Clinton-Dix still had fine seasons. The homegrown star parlayed his into the largest safety contract in NFL history in terms of annual average salary, and the former Packers first-rounder almost certainly won't be resigned to signing another one-year prove-it deal when he returns to the open market in March.
But if the Bears are to return to an elite playmaking unit again next season, it'll be in part because Jackson is again freed up to roam and ball hawk in space, likely with a new running mate.
2019 Matter of Fact: Thanks in large part to their last line of defense, the Bears ceded fewer explosive pass plays (47) than all but three other NFL clubs. They also notched fewer interceptions (7) than all but four clubs, which of course was the calling card not only of Jackson and Clinton-Dix but also Pagano and new secondary coach Deshea Townsend.
Jackson and Clinton-Dix each contributed only two interceptions, with both of Clinton-Dix's coming in Week 3 and Jackson picking his in the final five games, both off desperation heaves to seal victories. But both were strong in coverage, where Clinton-Dix lowered his yards per target allowed by two points -- from 8.5 two seasons ago to 6.5 yards last year -- and Jackson allowed only 5.4 yards/target en route to logging the lowest completion percentage over expectation and fewest completed air yards over expectation of any NFL defender, according to ESPN.
Jackson's coverage ability was obvious coming off his first-team All-Pro nod in 2018. Where he surprised most pleasantly was as a tackler, which he was asked to do a lot more of -- and closer to the line -- opposite Clinton-Dix this season, when his missed tackle percentage reduced by more than 2 percentage points, from 17.7 to 15.5, per Pro Football Reference. Clinton-Dix's number went up, from 8.8 to 10.3, but he finished third on the team in tackles (78) and broke up the same number of passes (5) as Jackson.
Cap Commitment: They have only 2.35% of the total projected cap allocated to safety, but the Bears have only one starter and two players currently signed. Jackson's extension includes $33 million guaranteed but a manageable $3.7-plus million of it counts toward this year's cap.
Level of Need (Lowest 1, Highest 5): The Bears obviously need more than recent futures signee Kentrell Brice in the room alongside Jackson, so we'll call this a 3.5. Why not higher? Like Clinton-Dix, Deon Bush is an impending free agent, but he should be easy enough to re-sign if the Bears choose -- and we think it'd be wise because of his untapped upside and decent run as an interim starter in limited chances. He's more natural than Clinton-Dix playing an enforcer role near the box, which could help accentuate Jackson's superb range, ball skills and instincts, and was one of the stars of last offseason before playing sporadically on defense.
If the Bears opt not to re-sign Bush, it might be because they're betting on Jackson providing enough flexibility that Pagano can plug in a rookie and just ask him to play physical and hard-nosed ball while covering limited ground.
Available prospects to watch: We don't expect it, but what if they could follow last year's formula -- signing a former first-round castoff on the cheap -- and add ex-Raider Karl Joseph? His rugged style would complement Jackson well, but it has led to durability questions, unlike with Clinton-Dix.
More likely, the Bears will look for value at the position on Day 3 of the draft, where Kam Chancellor clone Jeremy Chinn of Southern Illinois could fit wonderfully. Day 2 too rich for safety? If not, in light of Ryan Pace's affinity for small school prospects with big-time traits, we'd be remiss not mentioning fellow Senior Bowl attendee Kyle Duggar of Lenoir-Rhyne.