Matt Forte has been the Bears' starter since 2008.
Forte held out and refused to sign the franchise tender offered by the Bears. Phil Emery then inked him to a four-year, $32 million contract.
Was he worth it?
The Bears are in an unfortunate situation with the salary cap right now. If they decide to put the franchise tag on Henry Melton, it will cost them $8 million. Melton is one of the most talented and disruptive tackles in the NFL, but his contract would leave the Bears with very little cap space—about $3 million.
With such a small amount of money to throw around during free agency, the Bears will need to get creative.
The Chicago Tribune reported that the Bears are likely to restructure Julius Peppers’ contract, which would free up some space.
How much space, though? If the Bears wanted to vie for elite free agents, they would need some serious money. There are plenty of quality left tackles to be had this year, too.
According to ESPN, the Broncos are going to franchise tag Ryan Clady. That leaves Jake Long, Branden Albert, Will Beatty and potentially Sebastian Vollmer (more experienced at right tackle) as significant upgrades over J’Marcus Webb.
Jake Long, a former first overall pick, was a $12.8 million cap hit for the Dolphins the past two seasons. It’s unlikely that the Bears could keep Melton and make a play for Long or a comparable tackle. It would take someone of significant talent to supplant the incumbent Webb, who is inconsistent but young. Said talent costs money.
Which leads back to the initial question: Was Matt Forte worth the contract? Is his contract precluding the Bears from acquiring the pieces necessary to win a Super Bowl?
Forte has been a fan favorite since his rookie season, and he’s produced at an elite level at times. The question is not whether Forte has been effective, but if his production merits the amount of money Emery paid him. The NFL is a business, and being popular and productive doesn’t necessarily justify being overpaid.
Unfortunately, this evaluation will require Bears fans to revisit the painful 2011 season. Forte and the Bears were rolling through the competition, and they had accumulated 3,729 yards of total offense before the Kansas City game. Forte had tallied an astonishing 1,475 yards through 11 games—39.55 percent of the total offense.
There is nothing about those numbers that doesn’t say elite. Forte was also well within his right to demand guaranteed money—he had been working for next to nothing, and the KC injury showed how fragile a running back’s career is (average length of 2.6 years in the NFL).
In 2012, Forte was not as productive. He amassed 30.54 percent of the Bears’ total yardage (minus Week 3), which was a significant drop from 2011. He actually recorded more total yardage in an injury-shortened 2011 than a mostly healthy 2012.
Forte has been an outstanding running back, and that includes last year. But the Bears are paying him $7.3 million total next year, and will owe him $8.8 million in 2015. Forte will almost be 30 then, the age that most running backs lose a step (or three).
The Falcons paid Michael Turner almost the exact same amount ($8.9 million), at the same age (30), for less than 1,000 yards of total offense.
A more pressing question now regarding Forte’s contract might be totally unrelated to him: Is it worth paying running backs elite money anymore?
Adrian Peterson made a case for that this past season, when he dragged the Vikings into the playoffs. AP was admittedly otherworldly, but so was Chris Johnson in 2009.
Chris Johnson is still a productive running back, but his production is not as enormous as his paycheck. Johnson ranked only ninth in the NFL with over 1,200 yards rushing. How is that possible? Because quality running backs in today’s NFL are increasingly easy to find.
In 2012, 16 running backs cracked the 1,000 yard mark. In 1990? Half of that.
The following players had over 1,000 yards for a cap hit of less than $1.25 million (all rookie contracts): Alfred Morris, Doug Martin, Stevan Ridley and Shonn Greene.
Green Bay was a serious Super Bowl contender in 2012, and their leading rusher, Alex Green, had 464 yards.
Running backs might not be as vital as the money says. They can still be hugely important for some teams, but they are often overvalued. Michael Bush signed with the Bears for $14 million over four years. Are you convinced that Matt Forte is literally three times as good as Michael Bush?
Is it worth paying running backs elite money in today's NFL?
I personally love Matt Forte. He’s a stand-up guy and a great running back. He’s one of my favorite players on the Bears, and I would hate to see him play somewhere else.
That being said, maybe Jerry Angelo was right. ESPN reported that he offered Forte $6 million a year.
Mike Ditka said once that Bears legend George Halas “tosses nickels around like manhole covers.” And he won eight NFL championships.
*All salary cap figures provided by www.spotrac.com