Matt Forte has been one of the NFL's most consistent running backs since entering the league in 2008, but the Chicago Bears would be wise to draft a running back who can not only complement Forte this season, but eventually replace him in the future.
New head coach John Fox had success in Carolina implementing a two-back system with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart between 2008 and 2010, and he also had success last season in Denver running the football with C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman.
The Bears do not need to add a running back to compete with Forte in 2015 to be the starter, but they do need to add someone who can share the load with the soon-to-be 30-year-old running back.
Forte burst onto the scene in 2008 as a rookie, rushing for 1,238 yards on 316 carries with eight touchdowns, and he also hauled in 63 catches for 477 yards and four touchdowns.
Over the course of the next three seasons, Forte continued to dominate on the ground and through the air.
|Forte's Statistics Between 2009 and 2011|
|Year||Games||Rush Attempts||Rushing Yards||Catches||Receiving Yards||Total Touchdowns|
Despite missing time in 2011 due to an MCL injury, he was named to his first Pro Bowl and played in the game despite not playing the final four games of the season.
"The Pro Bowl, this is my first time making it, I want to go out there and be on the field," Forte said at the time about his decision to play, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. "You can’t worry about injuries all the time.”
His rookie contract expired that offseason and the Bears were forced to place the franchise tag on him that March.
"Matt is an important part of our football team and we chose to utilize the franchise tag to ensure he remains a Bear," former general manager Phil Emery said at the time, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPN Chicago. "We believe in Matt as a player and a person. Our intention is to continue to work to find common ground and keep Matt as a member of the Chicago Bears in 2012 and beyond."
Forte opted not to sign the franchise tender, and the team eventually signed Michael Bush as insurance in case a long-term deal could not be worked out. After the signing of Bush, Forte channeled his frustration on Twitter:
Forte eventually got the long-term deal he was looking for and signed a four-year contract worth $30.4 million, according to Spotrac.com.
"I'm proud to be a Chicago Bear and excited to be here for another four years," Forte said in a statement at the time, via Wright.
In the first three years of his new deal, Forte rushed for over 3,000 yards and proved to be one of the league's best receivers out of the backfield.
|Forte's Statistics Between 2012 and 2014|
|Year||Games||Rush Attempts||Rushing Yards||Catches||Receiving Yards||Total Touchdowns|
Despite how well he has played throughout his career, Forte is set to turn 30 years old this December and his body has endured a lot of wear and tear over the last seven seasons. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Forte has the sixth-most touches among all active running backs in the league with 2,260.
In a piece for ESPN.com last April, Kevin Seifert pointed out most running backs start to see a decline in their production around the age of 27. Forte has been remarkably healthy in his career—outside of his MCL injury in 2011—but history suggests he will be unable to match his prior production as he gets closer to the age of 30.
Even though he still has one year left on his deal, Forte took to Twitter in February to express his desire to continue playing in the NFL and with the Bears once his contract expires.
Forte may want to return to the Bears in 2016, but the team would be wise to look at this year's draft class to find his eventual replacement.
Potential Starters Could be Available in the Second Round
The Bears took Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey in the fourth round last year, but he ran the ball just 36 times in 14 games for 158 yards last season. He proved at the collegiate level he can be a workhorse—he ran the football 642 times in his final two seasons—but he played only 100 total snaps last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
Chicago's new coaching staff and front office could always stick with Carey as the No. 2 back behind Forte in 2015 and hope he develops, but it may be too difficult to pass up on some of the talent in this year's draft.
The Bears will likely look to add an impact player at either outside linebacker or wide receiver with their first pick, but they could be in the market for a running back in the second round.
Top running back prospects like Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon will likely be off the board when the team selects in the second round, but Boise State's Jay Ajayi or Indiana's Tevin Coleman could be potential targets for the Bears with the 39th overall pick.
Ajayi is a physical runner who uses great footwork to put himself in the best position to pick up yards. He has the ability to drop his helmet and drive through would-be tacklers, or he can bounce it to the outside and pick up yards with his lateral quickness. One negative to his game is he plays with too much patience at times, often waiting for holes to open up instead of trying to find somewhere else to go.
He finished his three-year career at Boise State with 3,796 yards on 678 carries with 50 touchdowns, including 28 last season.
Following a productive junior year, Coleman opted to forgo his senior season and declared for the NFL draft in late December.
He carried the ball 270 times last season and finished the year with 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns. He is a violent north-south runner who uses his powerful lower body to drive through defenders. He also has a strong stiff-arm and does not go down without a fight.
He does need to drop his pad level at times because he tends to run too tall, but Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com compared him to Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray.
"With similar body types and run styles, Coleman mirrors a lot of what Murray does on the football field, running with athleticism, toughness and the home-run ability to carry an offense," Brugler wrote.
Neither Ajayi nor Coleman would be expected to come in and beat out Forte for the starting job in training camp, but both have the ability to step in and contribute from Day 1.
If the Bears choose to address more pressing needs with their first few picks, they should still be able to find an instant contributor at the position later in the draft.
Talented—but Flawed—Backs Will Still Be Available in the Middle Rounds
Two backs who could interest the Bears in the third round are Minnesota's David Cobb and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon.
If Fox and the Bears want to add a powerful, one-cut back to complement Forte next season, Cobb could be their guy. He ran a disappointing 4.81 40-yard dash at the scouting combine back in February, according to NFL.com, but former NFL general manager and Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage pointed out on Twitter that Cobb had to pull up on his attempt due to a quad injury:
He has terrific vision, is difficult to take down and Bleacher Report's Matt Miller thinks Cobb is underrated:
He needs to improve in pass protection and as a receiver, but he has the chance to develop into a No. 1 running back in the future.
Just like Cobb, Yeldon is a one-cut runner who has great vision and hits the hole with a purpose. He carried the ball 576 times in three seasons for Alabama, racking up 3,322 yards on the ground and 37 touchdowns. He only ran for 979 yards last year after posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but the Crimson Tide went to a more pass-oriented offense in 2014 under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
He has the ability to dip and make defenders miss in the open field, but he is also not afraid to drop his shoulder and take on a would-be tackler. He runs a bit too upright and needs to work on dropping his pad height, specifically when running between the tackles.
"Yeldon has had fumble issues in the past, but he’s really impressive," Josh Norris of Rotoworld.com wrote in December. "He is showing more acceleration this year and always seems to fall forward for an extra yard or two."
Neither Cobb nor Yeldon are as polished as Ajayi or Coleman, but both have the ability to immediately contribute in a backup role in 2015 and have the potential to sit atop the depth chart at the position once Forte is gone.
With Forte getting closer to the age of 30, and a draft class loaded with talent at the position, the Bears must draft a running back this year who can complement Forte and eventually take over the position once the two-time Pro Bowler moves on from Chicago.
Matt Eurich is a Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.