Matt Forte’s numbers are impressive, but will Bears pay up?
SEAN JENSEN ON THE BEARS October 5, 2011 10:12PM
After four games, running back Matt Forte has been the most valuable Bear. | Wesley Hitt~Getty Images
GETTING A LOT FOR THE MONEY
Matt Forte isn’t among the highest-paid Bears, but he’s among the league leaders as a receiver and running back. Here’s a look, courtesy of STATS LLC, at where he stands:
Player/Team Att. Yds. Avg.
Darren McFadden, Raiders 75 468 6.2
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars 77 391 5.1
Adrian Peterson, Vikings 81 376 4.6
Fred Jackson, Bills 64 369 5.8
LeSean McCoy, Eagles 66 363 5.5
Cedric Benson, Bengals 77 348 4.5
MATT FORTE, BEARS 60 324 5.4
Ben Tate, Texans 68 321 4.7
Beanie Wells, Cardinals 59 321 5.4
YARDS AFTER CATCH
Player/Team Catches YAC Avg.
Wes Welker, Patriots 40 306 7.65
MATT FORTE, BEARS 26 292 11.23
Jahvid Best, Lions 17 268 15.76
Ryan Mathews, Chargers 19 263 13.84
Ray Rice, Ravens 16 225 14.06
Updated: November 16, 2011 9:47AM
After Matt Forte gained a career-high 205 rushing yards last Sunday, the Bears’ offensive linemen celebrated his performance in the locker room at Soldier Field.
“It was fun to go out and run the football,” center Roberto Garza said.
Then a reporter asked him if Forte was going to treat his linemen to a gift or meal.
“I don’t think he can afford it right now,” Garza playfully said. “We’ll talk about that later.”
It’ll be a short conversation.
Forte is one of the team’s lowest-paid veterans, making $600,000 this season in the final year of his four-year, $3.7 million rookie contract. The entire deal is a fraction of what offensive lineman Chris Williams, picked 30 spots ahead of Forte, received in guaranteed money, not to mention base salaries.
All of that has Forte’s teammates — from Lance Briggs to Chris Harris, Roy Williams and Devin Hester — openly campaigning for him to get a new deal.
But they shouldn’t hold their breath.
Before the season, general manager Jerry Angelo left open the possibility of addressing the contract during the season, but Forte’s agent said it’s status quo after four games.
“We have received no indication of any change in the stance of the Bears as it relates to their perception — despite his production — of Matt’s value,” agent Adisa Bakari told the Sun-Times.
For their part, the Bears prioritized signing Forte to an extension above everything else.
But where there’s a will doesn’t mean there’s a way.
During training camp, Forte balked at a proposal from the Bears that, according to ESPNChicago, included between $13 million and $14 million in guarantees. But without more specifics, it’s hard to gauge how fair the deal was. Still, that’s dramatically less guaranteed money than DeAngelo Williams ($21 million), Chris Johnson ($30 million) and Adrian Peterson ($36 million) received in their latest deals.
Forte has said he believes the central issue is whether, in the organization’s opinion, he’s an elite running back.
The numbers, through four games, are decidedly in his favor.
Forte is second in total yards from scrimmage with 634, and he’s tied for fourth with 23 first downs. But Forte also is distinguishing himself in statistics that highlight his playmaking ability. He has 292 yards after catch (second in the NFL), and he has 109 rushing yards after contact, which ranks 22nd in the NFL but is impressive given the struggles of the Bears to control the line of scrimmage.
But the more telling number is this: How many victories would the Bears have without him?
Whether it’s injuries, deficiencies or misdiagnoses, Forte clearly has been the MVP of the Bears’ offense, if not the entire team.
When in doubt, Hester said Sunday, the Bears give the ball to Forte.
“[Forte] doesn’t get enough credit,” Hester said. “He’s one of the top two running backs in the league.”
Whatever the Bears were willing to pay, the price obviously has gone up.
“We’ve stated from the very beginning that the longer we wait, the more difficult and complicated it becomes,” Bakari said. “Matt, to date, is performing at an ultra-elite level, and that’s an indisputable reality.”
What’s on the horizon?
Here’s another sobering reality: This could be Forte’s last season with the Bears.
Next offseason, the Bears might experience déjà vu — they unloaded a promising young player (Greg Olsen) this offseason for a draft pick (third-rounder) because they didn’t want to pay him a market-level contract.
The Bears could put the franchise tag on Forte next offseason and pay him what’s expected to be around $8 million for 2012.
But will Forte be as cooperative as he was this last offseason?
In addition, with a handful of traditionally aggressive teams struggling to get production at running back, the Bears might have to strike while the proverbial iron is hot before next year’s NFL draft.
Depending on how he finishes the season, Forte could net at least a second-round pick, which would allow the Bears to recoup their initial investment in him.
Forte largely has avoided piling on to the drama. But he surely would welcome a change of heart from the Bears, given the risk he takes every time he touches the ball — at a pace of 344 times this season.
The Bears have $18 million in salary-cap space, and they certainly will sign some players to new contracts before this season ends.
Forte should be the first one addressed.
But the Bears might be leery of overvaluing the running-back position like many other teams, although a few have bucked the trend.
For most, however, a big investment in running backs hasn’t typically yielded favorable returns.
There are countless examples of running backs whose production dramatically dipped after receiving a monstrous deal.
Director of player personnel Tim Ruskell handed Shaun Alexander an eight-year, $62 million deal that included $15 million in guarantees in March 2006, when he was the president of the Seattle Seahawks.
Alexander was the league MVP in 2005 after he rushed for 1,880 yards and scored 28 touchdowns. But he turned 29 before the 2006 season, and over the next two seasons, he didn’t come close to 1,000 rushing yards and averaged only 3.5 yards per carry.
Ultimately, while both sides want to strike a deal, they have varying opinions on value.
And until one side makes concessions, Forte, 25, will continue to collect paychecks equivalent to the minimum for a player of his experience, and this drama likely will drag into the offseason.