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Restricted free agent Kahlil Bell makes effective case for sticking

Kahlil Bell who gained 121 yards against Packers has stepped up with increased playing time. | Mike Roemer~AP

Kahlil Bell, who gained 121 yards against the Packers, has stepped up with increased playing time. | Mike Roemer~AP

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Updated: January 28, 2012 8:12AM

Since he entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, Kahlil Bell has been buried behind heralded veterans.

“If you give me an opportunity,” Bell said, “I’m going to perform.”

Those comments were uttered to the Sun-Times on Sept. 9, two days before the 2011 regular season opener against the Atlanta Falcons.

At that point, in two seasons with the Bears, Bell had gained 220 yards on 40 carries for an impressive 5.7-yard average. But in 2009 and ’10, he was, at best, third on the depth chart, behind Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. Then, entering this season, he was behind Forte and Marion Barber, whom the Bears signed to a two-year, $4.6 million contract.

But Bell impressed Sunday, running the ball 23 times for 121 yards and catching four passes for 38 yards in a 35-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers. He showed toughness, and he showed explosiveness with his cuts and runs to the outside and inside.

Asked if he’d be comfortable with Bell as the No. 2 running back ­behind Forte, coach Lovie Smith said, “Based on what he’s done his entire time here, you would feel comfortable.

“With a lot of players you ­wonder, ‘Well, can they do it?’ You may be in the backup role, but you’ve never played. But when you get a chance to see a player in a backup role and he performs that way, you have to be excited about his future.”

Bell is a restricted free agent, and he isn’t interested in being a backup.

“I never woke in the morning and said, ‘I’m going out there to be the No. 2 running back on any team that I’ve ever been on.’ My goal is to be a starter in this league, and that’s what I’m shooting for,” Bell said Monday. “I’m not settling for anything less.”

The Bears have some difficult decisions to make at running back.

Forte was an MVP candidate in the first half of the season, until his production dipped as opposing teams focused on limiting him and he suffered a knee injury Dec. 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Forte is an unrestricted free agent, and the Bears — without coming to terms with him on a long-term contract — are expected to designate him as the team’s franchise player. That would come with a one-year contract worth between $7.5 and $8 million for 2012.

Barber is scheduled to make $1.9 million, not including two bonuses for a combined $350,000. Given his injuries and his gaffes, Barber could be deemed expendable ­during the offseason.

“It’s a concern, always, when a player has missed time, and not just one year,” Smith said. “He’s been a player that’s been injured quite a bit. We always look at the history. So that is a factor in determining players on your roster, what position he has and all of that.

“But it’s just one of the things that you use to evaluate.”

Bell has distinguished himself throughout his time with the Bears, whether on the practice squad or starring on special teams.

Now, he’s excited about a chance to show the Minnesota Vikings what they missed out on.

“I don’t really like that team,” said Bell, who was signed by the Vikings an undrafted free agent in April 2009, but was released that August. “It’s not going to take much for me to be motivated for this game.

“Nobody likes to sit there and say they feel good about the team that let them go, but they obviously felt that I wasn’t adequate enough to be a part of their organization, which is in my mind a blessing ­because I love it here in Chicago.”

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