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Bears’ Matt Forte is good, but he’s not worth a huge payday

It’s tough criticize Bears for being conservative with Matt Forte contract negotiations. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

It’s tough to criticize the Bears for being conservative with Matt Forte in contract negotiations. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:25AM

I think we can all agree that Matt Forte’s 42-yard catch against the Giants was the one and only highlight of his preseason so far. If we can’t agree on that — if you believe his four rushes for seven yards are a small package of grace and beauty — then I’m guessing you still pine for the Curtis Enis era.

Don’t worry: Forte is not Enis. He’s not Rashaan Salaam nor Cedric Benson nor most of the running backs who have tried to fill Walter Payton’s white-taped shoes.

But what is he? That’s the question in front of the Bears as they try to decide how to pay a guy who believes he should be in line for a huge payday.

Let’s start with what Forte isn’t: He’s not an elite running back. He’s not Maurice Jones-Drew. He’s not Chris Johnson. He’s not Adrian Peterson. He’s not going to make something out of nothing along the line.

But he’s an excellent fit for offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s system. He’s very good at catching short passes and making something happen, as he showed on Jay Cutler’s screen pass Monday night. He can run the ball, but more than most backs in the NFL, he needs good blocking to get yards.

Forte considers himself one of the best running backs in the league.

“Production-wise, it says I am,’’ he said after practice Thursday. “Whether to the media or to the fans, whether I’m underrated or overrated to them, it doesn’t matter. If you look at stats, I am.’’

Last year, he rushed for 1,069 yards (a career-best 4.5 yards per carry) and caught 51 passes for 547 yards. That’s good stuff. Not great stuff, but good stuff. His total yards were 11th among running backs in 2010.

So what do you pay someone like that? What if Martz, who’s in the last year of his contract, isn’t back next season? What if the next coordinator decides to get off the bus running? And does Forte look to be the kind of back who will be able to hold up under constant punishment?

Those are legitimate questions, but all Forte sees is that he’s in the last year of a four-year, $3.7 million contract, which is relative peanuts. He sees Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams signing a five-year, $43 million contract and wonders, “Why not me?’’

Well, unlike Forte, Williams has a Pro Bowl appearance under his belt, as does Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, who signed a six-year, $32 million contract last year. That deal seems more in line with someone of Forte’s abilities. No one outside of a few people know what he’s asking, and all he would say about it Thursday was that the two sides are still negotiating.

The Bears can dole out their money any way they choose — a­nd it sure would be nice if general manager Jerry Angelo started spending some of the $19 million the team has in cap space — but it’s hard to criticize them for being conservative with Forte.

He’s the kind of running back whom Bears fans easily fall in love with, and by that I mean he’s pretty good. They’ve seen a lot of mediocre backs over the years. But Forte a star? On Thursday, one gambling website released its MVP odds for the 2011 season. Of the 34 players on the list, 11 are running backs. None goes by the name of “Matt Forte.’’

The list includes Houston’s Arian Foster, which brings us to a broader point. There are running backs out there who are lacking one thing: a chance.

The Texans signed Foster as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee in 2009. Last year, he won the starting job and finished with 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns on 327 carries and caught 66 passes for 604 yards. He led the league in rushing and made the Pro Bowl.

History has shown that success can be had despite the loss of good backs.

Denver might have started the trend in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it made do with Olandis Gary (1,159 yards), Mike Anderson (1,487) and a string of other backs after Terrell Davis’ career was cut short by injuries. The running back position hasn’t been devalued. The people playing the position have been devalued.

The Bears are pleased with the way Forte has handled his contract uncertainty. There was some talk that he might sit out training camp, but it never happened.

“I think the way he’s done everything since he showed up here the first day dressed in a suit . . . ready to go on a business trip, that’s what we got from him,’’ coach Lovie Smith said. “We realize he has a contract issue going on right now, but he’s come to work every day, hasn’t missed a beat, a practice.’’

Forte shrugs.

“I do what I do all the time: go out and work hard,’’ he said. “That’s what you do to get better, right?’’

But what do you do to get filthy rich instead of just fabulously rich? That’s the question.

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