FREE AGENCY PREVIEWS
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Bears need a No. 3, not much more at RB
Production from the running back position was less than the players or the offense would have liked, but the Bears go into the offseason as well staffed at this position as any on the roster.
A preseason highlight was Matt Forte concluding a four-year deal and Forte responded with the second-best rushing total (1,094 yards) in his career, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Michael Bush was added early in the offseason with a four-year contract of his own and matched Forte’s total of five rushing touchdowns.
The Bears signed Bush for four years and $14 million, placed their franchise tag on Forte, continued negotiating and finished that work on that contract in mid-July.
It was not a memorable season for Bears backs and the run game in general. The Bears were reasonably balanced (470 runs, 529 pass plays) and put up the third-highest rushing total (1,970 yards) since 1990. But expectations of a rushing offense being the foundation under then-coordinator Mike Tice were not achieved by a team that was 31st in yards on first-down plays (4.65).
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The offense had just 11 rushing plays of 20 yards or longer, down from 18 in 2011, and five fewer total run plays (53) of 10 or more yards than the year before (58).
Bush was the best of the recent support players behind Forte, with 411 yards and the five touchdowns despite missing virtually the final four games with a rib injury.
Forte’s use as a receiver dropped last season, ostensibly because of Jay Cutler’s extensive reliance on Brandon Marshall. His reception total (44) was the lowest of his career, something that is expected to change under Marc Trestman and a West Coast system that typically makes extensive use of backs and tight ends in the passing game.
Armando Allen provided a third runner and averaged 4.6 yards on 27 carries, one for a 46-yard TD at Jacksonville. Kahlil Bell filled in as an emergency signing but is unlikely to be back in 2013.
Needs assessment: 2 (1-10 scale)
Forte has been a model of durability outside of his season-ending knee injury in 2011 and one game missed last season with an ankle injury. The Bears have gotten 114 carries from their No. 2 back (Bush, Marion Barber) in each of the past two seasons and 112 from Chester Taylor in 2010.
[BODEN: Urlacher to return somewhere]
The result has been less wear on Forte, who had 316 carries his rookie year (which took a toll on hamstring and knee), 258 the next and no more than the 248 of last season, albeit due to various nicks. Forte is 27, Bush 29, and after trying to address Forte’s understudy role for the past several seasons, Bush solidified the position for the foreseeable future.
The variable is the role of a fullback in the Trestman offense. Evan Rodriguez was drafted as a tight end, shifted to fullback and now will be looking for a role in an offense that wants weapons exploiting every area of the field, not merely blocking for Forte. But the Bears will not spend money or a draft choice on a pure fullback.
Depending upon the design of the fullback position, the Bears may not really need one. Forte and Bush are both under contract for the next three years and adding depth after that will relate more to special teams. Allen holds an early edge in any competition for the No. 3 job.
But the position group is expected to assume a greater role in the offense under Trestman and coordinator Aaron Kromer. Backs in Trestman offenses have caught upwards of 100 combined passes during his times with San Francisco, Arizona and Oakland, and a goal this offseason is expected to be the re-integration of backs into all phases of the offense.
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Exactly how that fit occurs, “that’s what I’m looking forward to finding out,” Trestman said. “I haven’t seen enough of it to know. I’ll sit with Phil. I’ll watch the tape myself. And with our coaches. And we’ll try to provide every single player, whether it’s Matt or any other player on our team who steps out on the field, to put them in a position to maximize their skills.”
Best free-agent options (based on value, fit)
Danny Woodhead, New England -- All-purpose back who upgrades depth at RB, returner and passing game.
Justin Forsett, Houston -- Another change-of-pace back (5-9, 180) who has averaged 4.4 yards per carry through a career with Houston, Seattle and Indianapolis; seven career starts, returns punts and kickoffs.
Armando Allen, BEARS -- Smallish tailback who will play special teams.
Cedric Benson, Green Bay -- (just kidding).