How much Bears 'need' Forte overhangs possible contract talks

How much Bears 'need' Forte overhangs possible contract talks
May 21, 2012, 4:37 pm
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Matt Forte was direct and blunt after the Bears signed former Raider running back Michael Bush early in this offseason. He said he felt disrespected.

In some ways, its very likely he was. But not in a simplistic we-dont-like-you kind of way, possibly not the way Forte envisions.

The Bush signing was intended to be an elite-grade addition to depth at a franchise-altering position. The Bears have done the same thing with Kevin Jones, Chester Taylor and Marion Barber in recent offseasons.

Bush just happens to be the best in a continuing elevation of the talent search which has gone from Jones and his torn ACL to Taylor and his steady decline as hes aged to Barber, still with something left but clearly not much since hes since retired. Bush is a potential starter; Forte was right about that.

Tilting away from 22

But what the Bears have done this offseason is steadily made themselves less and less dependent on a back even as good as Forte. Oversimplifying a little, and apart from any general devaluing of the running-back position, they just dont need Forte as desperately as they did a year ago.

Part of that is most evident in the major upgrades at wide receiver. The Bears did not trade for Brandon Marshall and draft Alshon Jeffery in the second round with the intention of Forte accounting for the nearly 40 percent of total offensive yardage as he did through the 11 complete games he played in 2011.

To stress one point here: The Bears absolutely, unequivocally want Forte in Chicago, for the foreseeable future. Thats not a question; thats why they put what they consider a very strong offer on the table for him nearly a year ago.

But where Johnny Knox and Roy Williams combined for 74 catches at one wideout spot, Marshall has averaged 95 in the five seasons since his rookie year. Knox and Williams combined for 4 touchdowns last season; Marshall averages more than 6.

Options increasing

More notable, Marshall and Jay Cutler were both under-used rookies in 2006. The next two years Marshall caught 102 and 104 Cutler passes, best in his career, plus 13 TDs.

And take talk of a Devin Hester package seriously. That will be more targeted and designed than the previous program of Hester basically as a straight-up starting receiver.

Fortes high-water production mark arguably may have been last season, when his value to the Bears also was at its peak. With the possible tilting of the offense toward a West Coast scheme (what Cutler, Marshall and Jeremy Bates worked in under Mike Shanahan in Denver), Fortes abilities have not declined in the least. The Bears simply have significant alternatives.

That does not drive the price up, regardless of what other running backs are receiving under their new contracts.

Very cloudy future

Indeed, unless a long-term deal does get done with Forte and there is salary cap space to conclude one -- it also is becoming increasingly difficult to envision a scenario in which Forte is a Bear in 2013.

The only way he creates value for himself is to play, and play well enough for the organization to pay him 7.7 million this year and deem him worth some 9.5 million next year.

Forte has not vilified the organization as some others have theirs but he has not always taken what could be characterized as the complete high road. Understandably; hes more than earned the right to say what he feels.

But hard feelings dont always completely go away. Up in New England, where franchise-tagged, All-Pro receiver Wes Welker was quoted as saying that his contract talks were getting worse, the sentiment is growing that this is Welkers last year as a Patriot. Boston Globe reporter Shalise Manza Young wrote that Welkers comments did not play well with the Patriots, and that organization does not have a long fuse with players out of step.

Forte is held in very high regard in the locker room and on the field. The Bears do want him signed. He is a unique back who fits in a West Coast, Mike Martz or just about any offensive scheme.

But how much more they will offer at a time when they have upgraded factors elsewhere in the offense is very problematic.