15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 12 - Eddie Jackson

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 12 - Eddie Jackson

If the Chicago Bears are going to have any chance of competing in the NFC North in 2018, they'll need extraordinary play from the secondary. 

One of the most important pieces in the defensive backfield is second-year safety Eddie Jackson, who after joining the Bears as a fourth-round pick in 2017, is on the cusp of league-wide recognition as one of the best at his position.

Jackson wasn't supposed to start as a rookie last year. He was coming off an injury-plagued final season at Alabama and was viewed as a classic day-three pick with upside. Then came training camp.

It quickly became apparent that Jackson was one of Chicago's most talented defenders and he earned an opening-day starting job. He turned in a phenomenal rookie year that ended with 16 starts, 70 tackles, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. Jackson brought that missing playmaking element back to the secondary.

RELATED: 15 Most Important Bears of 2018: 15 - Taylor Gabriel, 14- Trey Burton, 13 - Danny Trevathan

Still, Jackson has room to improve in 2018. His 77.1 grade from Pro Football Focus ranked 53rd among safeties last season. He gave Bears fans their first taste of timely turnovers since Mike Brown's departure in 2008, but it wasn't a perfect year. Jackson has to take another step in his development for Chicago's defense to become, potentially, an elite unit.

Jackson is an even more important variable than Adrian Amos, who ranked as the second-best safety in the league last year by PFF. Amos is more of a thumper. He excels against the run. But the best defenses create turnovers, and that's where Jackson can be truly special. He's a legitimate center fielder with great range and the physical makeup (length) needed to become a perennial Pro Bowler. 

If Jackson becomes that guy for the Bears in 2018, the sky's the limit for Vic Fangio's defense.

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

USA Today

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

Jordan Howard has accomplished some pretty amazing things to start his career. Most notably, he's the only running back in Chicago Bears franchise history to finish his first two seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, including 1,313 yards as a rookie, good for a team rookie record.

Still, Howard has been the target of criticism this offseason because of his questionable set of hands. He was plagued by a case of the drops last season and he's been labeled as a guy who can't catch the ball heading into 2018. Combine that with the player nipping at his heels -- Tarik Cohen -- and the overwhelming theory advanced by analysts is that he'll give way to Cohen on passing downs.

This presumption has made its way into the world of fantasy football, too. Howard is rarely if ever mentioned as one of the first running backs that should be drafted this summer and in a recent player vs. player showdown on Pro Football Focus, 49ers starter Jerick McKinnon was selected as a more appealing fantasy starter in 2018.

It’s close, but I give the nod to Jerick McKinnon. Howard’s troubles in the passing game are very real and it’s clear the Bears want to focus on that more this year. Meanwhile, McKinnon was handed a fat contract and has little competition when it comes to carries.

McKinnon, a career backup, was signed by San Franciso to be Kyle Shanahan's feature running back. He has a real chance to be a stud in fantasy circles, but should he be valued over a guy like Howard who's proven to be a contender for the NFL's rushing crown?

All of this offseason chatter will serve as great motivation for Howard who has to prove, first and foremost, that he can be a three-down back for coach Matt Nagy in the Bears' new offense. If he has a consistent training camp as a receiver and carries that momentum into the preseason and regular season, those fantasy players who draft McKinnon or another less-proven player over Howard will long for a redo.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

Eddie Goldman is entering the final year of his contract this season and in order to cash in on a big payday, he'll need to stay healthy and make good on his top-tier potential. 

If he does, he'll become a very wealthy man and the Bears defense will have an even better year than its top-10 finish a season ago.

Goldman, 24, came to Chicago via the second round of the 2015 NFL draft and quickly became a household name among Bears fans. He started 12 games that season and finished with a surprising 4 1/2 sacks, a total that was more productive than his college scouting report predicted. He was pegged as a breakout star for 2016, but injuries ultimately derailed his second season. He played only six games that year (started five) but still flashed a surprisingly productive set of pass-rush traits; he finished 2016 with 2 1/2 sacks.

This past season represented something of a mixed bag for Goldman. He started 15 games and quieted some of the injury concerns that started bubbling around him, but his production dipped. He managed only 1 1/2 sacks. That said, he set a career-high with 27 tackles, nearly doubling his output as a rookie.

Still, Goldman wasn't a dominant force in 2017. He finished the year ranked 69th among interior defenders with a 76.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. Despite being healthy and available, it was the lowest season grade of his career from PFF.

Nose tackle is arguably the most critical position for any defense running a 3-4 scheme. It's no exception in Chicago. Goldman will set the table for linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith and the more bodies he can consume or attention he can draw from offensive lines, the more room second-level defenders will have to work. It's not just about filling up the stat sheet for Goldman. If he clogs running lanes and collapses the pocket consistently, he'll be worth every penny of a big contract extension despite lacking numbers.

The Bears need Goldman to bring his A-game in 2018, especially as a pass rusher. Chicago resides in arguably the most talented quarterback division in the NFL and for the defense to make those quarterbacks uncomfortable, Goldman has to apply pressure up the middle. He's proven he can do it, as evidenced by his rookie year production. But he's been on a steady decline in this area of his game since then and there's no room for more regression in 2018.

Players entering contract years tend to bring extra motivation to the field and there's no reason to expect anything less from Goldman. If he can combine his rookie year production with last season's availability, he could end up with the most well-rounded year of his career en route to leading the Bears' defensive line on a late-season playoff push.