Eddie Jackson

Eddie Jackson, Cody Whitehair release signals start of next phase of Ryan Poles' rebuild

The Bears are entering the next step of Ryan Poles' great rebuilding project

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The writing was on the wall long before the Bears made their move Thursday.

Veteran interior offensive lineman Cody Whitehair was benched last season and knew his career would continue elsewhere in 2024. Safety Eddie Jackson revitalized his career in 2022 under new head coach Matt Eberflus, but a nagging foot injury caused his play to dip in 2023. That, coupled with a cap hit of $18.1 million, made it likely that he'd be released this offseason.

Jackson sat down with NBC Sports Chicago prior to the end of the season and expressed his desire to see general manager Ryan Poles' rebuild through to the end. But the 29-year-old also understood the business aspect of the Bears' upcoming decision and was at peace with the fact that he might have to find a new home in 2024.

"This is where it started," Jackson told NBC Sports Chicago in early January. "I was a part of this when it was up. I was a part of it when it was down. Now, I’m a part of it when it’s going back up, so, shoot, I’ve earned the right to be a part of it when it’s on the way up.

"Next year, man, it’s got to be. Here or somewhere else. Pray to god it’s hear, man. Got to be here. I've still got more left to give."

But it won't be. On Thursday, the Bears officially released Jackson and Whitehair, opening up an estimated $21.5 million in salary cap space and signaling the start of the next phase of Poles' rebuild.

When Poles arrived in 2022, he had to decide which veterans to keep around to help him and Eberflus set the foundation for what they wanted to build.

Khalil Mack was traded early. Akiem Hicks wasn't brought back. Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith didn't make it out of the 2022 season.

On the surface, Jackson and Whitehair, especially Jackson, appeared to be easy cuts for Poles to make early in his tenure. They were accomplished veterans who carried big price tags and whose play had started to slip.

However, Poles needed a few veterans who would buy into the culture Eberflus wanted to build. He knew the Bears needed a few reliable veterans to set the tone and bring a young roster along with them.

Since two of Poles' first undertakings were revamping a putrid secondary and reworking the offensive line, Jackson and Whitehair became the two long-tenured Bears relied on to get the rebuild off the ground.

Jackson had a resurgent 2022 season before a Lisfranc injury ended his season early. His mentorship of Jaquan Brisker helped key the second-year safety's rise in 2023. But Jackson re-injured the foot early in 2023 and seemed a step slow after returning, making Thursday's decision easy for Poles.

Whitehair was a vital veteran voice in an offensive line room with young talents Darnell Wright, Teven Jenkins, and Braxton Jones. He played wherever the Bears asked -- left guard, right guard, and center -- but his snap issues and declining play led to him being benched this past season, spelling the end of his time in Chicago.

After two seasons spent turning over the roster and creating a culture, the cap hits Jackson and Whitehair carried finally outweighed their value to a young, rebuilding roster. Whitehair and Jackson would have carried top-12 cap hits at their respective positions in 2024, and that's not something a Bears team could stomach while exiting the build-up phase and entering the compete phase.

With Jackson and Whitehair gone, the Bears now have no players on their roster who were drafted before 2020. The Bears are estimated to have around $68 million in cap space, but after taking out the money slotted in for the 2024 draft class and full 51-man roster, their effective cap space sits at around $55 million. Once you take out some money for in-season ($5-$7 million) and the likely franchise tag for Jaylon Johnson ($18 million), the Bears will be around $30 million, maybe slightly less, for free agency.

That illustrates why the moves to cut Jackson and Whitehair were necessary. The $21 million opened up will serve Poles well as he looks to plug more holes on a young, ascending roster he plans to contend with in 2024, regardless of the quarterback.

Jackson and Whitehair were true professionals and were integral in getting the massive rebuilding project off the ground. In a fair world, given the lean years they saw early in their career, they would have been allowed to see their work through.

But the NFL is an unfair business. It's about dollars and cents and what you can do for me now, not what you have done.

The Bears needed the cap space. They can get younger at safety for cheaper in the 2024 draft. They can get younger, cheaper, and more effective on the interior of the offensive line both in free agency and in the draft.

In the end, the calculus was an easy one for Poles. He has turned the roster over by adding young talent and acquiring blue-chip players. The roster is in a good place, with the arrow pointing up.

The Bears plan to legitimately contend for a division title next season. To do that, they have to keep getting younger and cheaper wherever possible so they can allocate their money in the necessary spots. Backup offensive line and free safety don't crack the list for a team that plans to shift the conversation from rebuilding to winning in 2024.

They couldn't seriously say they were doing that with Jackson and Whitehair still on the roster.

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