Matt Forte is still playing under his initial “rookie” deal, at $600,000 for this season. He wants a new long term deal and so far the two sides have been unable to reach agreement. According to the ESPN story, the maximum offer from the Bears ranges between 13 and 14 million dollars. If the Bears franchise him, they will have to pay approximately 9.5 million in salary for one season.
Matt Forte will turn 26 in December, and as with all running backs, teams are hesitant to pay big money into the future for the position. Forte is also as large a part of the Bears’ offense as any back, already has over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, and is on pace for over 2,400 yards this season.
Let’s take a look at comparable backs to Matt Forte to try to at least assess how long he will be productive. Since Forte is an old 25 this season, and will turn 26 before the season ends, we’ll start with all backs that had over 2,000 yards from scrimmage since the merger at ages 25 or 26. Nineteen different backs are on that list. From that, I’ll carve out Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Thurman Thomas, and Terrell Davis. All except Davis are in the Hall of Fame, and all were more productive than Forte before this age, and scored more touchdowns.
On the other end, I’ll exclude James Wilder, Jamal Anderson, Larry Johnson, and Deuce McAllister for not having started as long or having the history of Forte before age 25/26. Wilder, Anderson and Johnson show the myth of “fresh legs” from not having carries early, as all three were used up with three of the highest workload seasons. I’ll also kick out Ricky Williams, because trying to look at Ricky’s career for anything related to other backs is probably pointless.
That leaves William Andrews, Roger Craig, Ahman Green, Edgerrin James, Wilbert Montgomery, O.J. Simpson, and Herschel Walker. O.J. wasn’t actually as accomplished before age 26 and his big year, and also was not used as a receiver, only having 70 receiving yards the year he rushed for 2,003. The other six, though, were dual threats as receivers and running backs, and are pretty good comps for Forte at the same age. James would be part of the Hall of Fame group for his first two years, but his production from age 23 to 26, post knee injury, is pretty similar to Forte.
So, how did those six backs do going forward? In the next year (Year 1), they averaged 1528 yards from scrimmage, still very good. In Year 2, it was 1378 yards, with the average being pulled down only because Ahman Green tore a knee in the 5th game. In Year 3, it was an average of 1211 yards from scrimmage, with William Andrews’ career ending because of a knee injury before the season began. In Years 4 & 5, it was 675 and 668 yards from scrimmage, as only Herschel Walker and Roger Craig in year 4, and Walker and Montgomery in year 5 had over 1,000 yards.
The bad news for Forte is this: He was an older rookie, so he would be starting a new contract next year and turning 27 before the season ended. The good news, though, is this: Backs like Forte, who are more heavily involved as receivers and are yardage machines versus pounding touchdown machines, can have a little longer shelf life. He’s also not missed any games or had serious injuries yet, which makes me tend to think he’ll age reasonably well and be productive for a few more years.
Forte’s comparables were pretty good for three more years, which would take him through the 2014 season when he turns 29 at the end of that year. After that, I would not expect him to remain a starter, though the possibility exists.
With a franchise tag number around 9.5 million, we can use that as an estimate for what teams are willing to pay for one pretty good running back season and not be tied for the future. The Bears current offer is only 1.5 times that in guaranteed money. Obviously, the goal of a franchise is not to pay full market price. The Bears could probably justify going up on the guaranteed money to something like 20-22 million and try to buy up 3 more good seasons for a back that is a centerpoint to the offense. It seems like a reasonable chance to take that Forte will be a productive back for three more years. That offer would also make Forte think twice before running the risk of an injury and getting nothing. Much more, though, and they would probably be better off going with the franchise tag for one more season and letting him go.
[photo via Getty]