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Bears’ Matt Forte unlikely to bite without better offer

Recent lucrative extensions given NFL running backs may be complicating Bears’ talks with Matt Forte. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Recent lucrative extensions given to NFL running backs may be complicating the Bears’ talks with Matt Forte. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 5, 2011 1:28PM

Matt Forte isn’t sure whether he’ll sign an extension with the Bears before the regular-season opener, but the starting running back knows nothing will affect his status for the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 11.

‘‘I’m always going to play, man,’’ Forte, who’s entering the last year of his rookie contract, told the Sun-Times on Thursday. ‘‘We’re still negotiating, so we’ll see what happens.’’

Forte declined further comment, and his agent, Adisa Bakari, declined any comment.

But don’t expect an extension unless the Bears raise the stakes.

They have extended an offer to Forte that includes $13 million to $14 million in guarantees, according to ESPN Chicago. A Bears spokesman declined to comment on the report but said the sides continue to work toward a deal.

The reported offer probably isn’t going to get Forte to pick up a pen, let alone sign anything. Historically, running backs have been considered dispensable, largely devalued because of the physical demands of the position. But in a little more than a month, two running backs have signed lucrative deals. On July  29, DeAngelo Williams signed a five-year, $43 million deal with the Carolina Panthers that included $21 million in guarantees. Then, on Thursday, Chris Johnson signed a four-year, $53.5 million extension with the Tennessee Titans that includes $30 million in guarantees, a record for a running back.

The Bears’ reported offer is in line with a three-year, $21 million extension with $13.5 million in guarantees that the San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore accepted Wednesday. Gore, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, was entering the final year of a four-year, $28  million extension he signed in 2008, a deal that included $13.8  million in guaranteed money.

Over the last three seasons, though, Forte has outproduced Gore. He has more rushing and receiving yards and a combined 491 yards more than Gore, with only one fewer touchdown.

Much of that can be attributed to games played. But durability is essential at running back, with Gore missing five games in 2010 and not playing a full season since 2006. Gore is also 28 and has endured a handful of injuries, including a fractured hip.

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said early in training camp that the key was finding ‘‘a common ground.’’ But he also noted that ‘‘extensions are much tougher because agents normally look at the [unrestricted free-agent] market to set their counts.’’

Williams was an unrestricted free agent, but Gore had a season left on his deal. Johnson had two.

One executive said the Panthers did the rest of the NFL a disservice, clearly overpaying for Williams, 28, who played just six games last year. But the deal is in the books, and Johnson has benefitted.

The question now is how much — if at all — Forte does.

Barring a sudden and dramatic change of heart, the Bears may take that risk, knowing they can franchise Forte next season at a price projected to be between $7  million and $8 million.

As he reiterated Thursday, Forte will honor his rookie contract. But during an Aug. 4 interview with the Sun-Times, he said a new deal would be ‘‘more difficult’’ if the Bears wait until next offseason.

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