Forte is one of the game’s best dual-threat backs, having set the running back record for most receptions in a season in 2014. However, he’s coming off an injury-afflicted season and will be 31 years old this time next year, which are both indications he won’t remain with the Chicago Bears.
Martin, 27, regained form as one of the league’s top backs, finishing second to only Adrian Peterson in rushing yards with 1,402. As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope to take a leap forward in the NFC South under new head coach Dirk Koetter, they’ll want to keep their star around to complement sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston.
Here is a look at the latest on the two top running backs on set to hit the free-agent market.
Forte is arguably the league’s most underrated back given his versatility and health through his first seven seasons, but his biggest knock entering free agency will be his age.
He’s already eclipsed the 30-year-old mark that is a general indicator of decline among running backs, which will affect his market value in dollars and years.
Forte earned $7.05 million in base salary in the final year of his last deal, but that figure seems steep moving forward, per Spotrac, which estimates that he’ll haul a base deal at $6.3 million over three years:
First off let’s be clear here: It’s extremely unlikely that at 30 years old, Matt Forte pulls in a contract averaging $7M+ per year. The reality here is that in terms of calculated production, Forte sits as an above average running back and an above average wide receiver. In 2014, Forte was 4th in the NFL with 102 receptions. When he’s healthy (and he has been most of his career), he’s still a yards from scrimmage hog, and his ability to be flexed around offensive schemes makes him valuable to plenty of franchises. His pay will likely be based on how a team plans to use him. He’s worth much more as a receiver than a running back.
Forte publicly voiced his wish for an extension last summer, but that never materialized.
In fact, he was linked to trade talks through the regular season before the trade deadline in October, which was a strong indicator that the Bears wouldn’t re-sign him—at least not at the rate of his four-year, $30.4 million extension signed before the 2012 season.
But all signs foreshadow that he won’t collect that kind of money whether in Chicago or elsewhere. And given that his relationship with the Bears seems rocky at best, if he’s taking a pay cut, it won’t be with the team he spent the first seven years of his career with.
Evan Silva of Rotoworld speculated that Forte could take the path of many other established veteran backs in search of a ring—such as Corey Dillon and Fred Taylor—and venture to the New England Patriots:
Evan Silva @evansilva
Matt Forte's contract is up & he seems destined to leave #Bears. On paper, hard to imagine better fit than #Patriots if cost is reasonable.2016-1-5 00:49:23
The Patriots made do without Dion Lewis after the fourth-year back went down with an ACL tear, but his injury showed their lack of reliable depth at the position, as they eventually had to sign Steven Jackson before the regular-season finale.
After being the workhorse of Chicago’s entire offense, let alone the running game, Forte may be enticed by a backfield that can share the load and keep him fresh in his final years. New England could certainly offer him a role as a complement to Lewis, who signed a two-year extension in October.
Another team that could divvy up his carries is the Dallas Cowboys, whose backfield houses established rushers Darren McFadden and Robert Turbin.
The Cowboys platooned their running backs most of the season, as neither could firmly fill the void left by reigning rushing champion DeMarco Murray, but Dallas still finished ninth in rushing.
However, the Cowboys’ playoff hopes next season and beyond go well past the health of Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo.
Forte has played in the postseason only once in seven seasons, and given that he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, he’ll be far more enticed by the prospect of a ring.
Prediction: Forte signs with Patriots.
Martin and the Bucs have a “mutual interest in a contract to keep him in Tampa Bay,” according to Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times.
But they won’t get him at the bargain they paid during his last deal, which was worth $6.7 million over four years. In fact, he should collect even more than that amount on a per-year basis in whatever new deal he signs, with Tampa Bay or not, per Spotrac.
Martin broke into the league in a burst, finishing his rookie year with 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground and another 472 yards and a score through the air. But in the two injured-filled seasons after that, he combined for 1,080 all-purpose yards in 17 games—prompting speculation about his future.
But Martin silenced that speculation as the heartbeat of Tampa Bay’s offense, picking the perfect year to do so as he gets set to hit free agency.
The Buccaneers fired head coach Lovie Smith but replaced him with Koetter, who joined the team last year as offensive coordinator.
Despite a new coach, there isn’t a ton of turnover in Tampa Bay. Before losing their final four games—which played the major factor in Smith’s firing—the Bucs were considered a midseason dark horse to reach the playoffs.
Behind Winston, who became just the third rookie quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 4,000 yards, and third-year receiver Mike Evans, the Bucs have a stable and youthful core on offense—a group that finished fifth in total yards last season.
Keep Martin in the mix, and they’ll have a three-headed beast to continue to build around.
Before joining Tampa Bay, Koetter turned Matt Ryan into an MVP candidate and developed Julio Jones into the league's top receiver as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons, reaching the NFC Championship Game in 2012 with a unit that ranked seventh in scoring.
Martin will try to maximize his value in his next deal, but if he can get such a contract from the Bucs, he should go for it. The coaching and talent are there for him to thrive as he hits the prime of his career.
Prediction: Martin re-signs with Bucs.