Probably the most important question facing new Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery is what to do with Matt Forte. The star running back and 2008 second-round pick is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency when the new league year begins March 13.
The obvious answer is that the Bears absolutely have to pay the man. The offense cratered when he went down with a knee injury against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13. Neither Marion Barber III nor Kahlil Bell, individual or collectively, could replace his production either as a runner or a receiver. The Bears' offensive line, justifiably much-maligned in recent years, is not good enough that just any running back can be productive behind it. He's also a valuable and prolific receiving option, with 50 or more catches every year of his career. Obviously, the Bears have to pay the man.
Then again, Forte wasn't the only reason the Bears offense cratered at the end of the year. After all, quarterback Jay Cutler also missed the final four games of the season, and Caleb Hanie was by at least one measure the worst quarterback on a per play basis in the NFL last year. In a passing league, the replacement of a flawed but talented quarterback with a terrible one is more important than the difference between a good running back and a couple below average ones. Maybe paying Forte isn't such a necessary move after all.
If the Bears do decide to pay Forte, the question then becomes how and how much. It's been reported previously that the Bears were offering $13-15 million in guaranteed money, while Forte was looking for closer to $20 million, along the lines of what DeAngelo Williams received. That DeAngelo Williams contract is one of several cautionary tales that may indicate to Emery paying Forte isn't a good idea. These include:
- DeAngelo Williams. Signed by the Panthers to a 5-year, $43 million deal with $21 million guaranteed. Results: 836 yards rushing while splitting time with Jonathan Stewart, while a passing game reinvigorated by TGS Rookie of the Year Cam Newton provided most of the offensive fireworks.
- Chris Johnson. Signed by the Titans to a 6-year, $56 million deal with $31 million guaranteed. For that, the Titans got just over 1,000 yards rushing (unimpressive in a 16-game season) and at times apparent substandard level of effort after getting paid.
- Adrian Peterson. Signed by the Vikings to what was nominally a 7-year, $100 million dollar extension, but more like a $40 million deal over three years with $36 million guaranteed. While Peterson's level of performance didn't decline, he did suffer a season-ending injury that cost him the final four games.
Since Forte is coming off a season-ending injury of his own, the Bears will surely take that into account in deciding whether to pay the man. I tried to find a list of players similar to Forte who'd missed at least four games, but still had at least 800 yards rushing and 40 receptions. That list contains all at least relatively famous players, with Jets stalwart of the 1980's Freeman McNeil being perhaps the most obscure. Some of the players are obviously better fits than others. Forte's favorite parallel is probably Steven Jackson's 2008 season. Jackson missed four games with a lingering quad injury that year, and had missed four games the year before as well, but since then has returned to pretty much full health, playing 46 of 48 games the last three years, with at least 1100 yards rushing and 40 receptions every year. Considering only the injury-plagued McNeil and the older Faulk failed to return to their prior levels of play after those truncated seasons, combined with the fact that Forte's injury was only a relatively minor MCL sprain and not a full ACL tear, history suggests that his injury is not a good reason not to pay Matt Forte.
One thing that will factor into the Bears' decision on Forte is who might be available to replace him. It's probably a safe assumption that they'd want a back with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, but the list of free agents isn't long on backs with receiving ability. Ray Rice is the class of the market, but will probably want even more money than Forte does, and the Ravens will probably want to keep him. Arian Foster is another back who's a good receiver, but would cost the Bears a first-round pick to sign and probably want more money. A better option might be a third-down back like Mewelde Moore and spending some money not used on Forte to upgrade on Barber, maybe with Michael Bush.
Ultimately what may drive the Bears' decision on it is where they see their team. With both Cutler and Forte in the lineup, the Bears were slated to make the playoffs. They weren't going to catch the Packers last year, but they were the #2 seed in the NFC in 2010. If the Bears think they can be a contender in the next three years, which they should consider Jay Cutler and some very talented players on defense, they should re-sign Forte. Otherwise, the lack of a quality top wideout may be more of a problem, exposing the entire offense, and Emery will have to find at least one more talented player. If he and the Bears can't come to terms, then they should absolutely use the franchise tag on him. Either way, though, the Bears should not let Matt Forte hit the market this offseason.
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