Forte deserves bigger contract — next year

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After finishing a season in which he became the first Bears running back since Walter Payton to gain 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards, Matt Forte is seeking a contract extension and a significant raise.

It seems logical to oblige considering Forte joined rare company with a solid season. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league and averaged 101 total yards per game with rushing and receiving yards combined. Forte tied Johnny Knox for the team lead in regular season receptions with 51. In two postseason games, Forte led the team with 13 receptions, seven more than Knox and Greg Olsen.

Forte was the Bears’ best offensive weapon and it’s no coincidence that when offensive coordinator Mike Martz began to utilize Forte’s many talents the Bears started winning games following their bye week. That kind of dependence and reliance on him paired with his production should be enough to give him a pay increase and keep him around for a while.

There’s just one problem: the Bears gave backup Chester Taylor a lot of money in the offseason when they signed him to a four-year, $12.5 million deal. The Bears aren’t going to want to commit big money to two running backs, especially when they have so many other holes to fill on offense, particularly along the line.

“I appreciate Chester, and we have a good rotation going on,” Forte said in an interview with the Sun-Times. “But I just hope the Bears’ management and coach Lovie [Smith] get together and do what’s fair. I’m just hoping they do the right thing, but there’s really nothing I can do about it.”

I agree with Forte that it’d be fair if the Bears’ No. 1 back made more than the backup did, but now is not the time to extend Forte’s deal. The Bears need to use their money on upgrading the offensive line first and they should let Forte play out the last year of his deal. At 25, Forte is five years younger than when most running backs traditionally break down, so he has one more big pay day coming. But he needs to prove he can stay healthy and produce at a high level for another year.

On one hand, Forte suffered knee and hamstring injuries in only his second season in the league, certainly a cause for concern for a player at a position that doesn’t have a good shelf life. On the other hand, Forte has not missed a game — or a start — in his three-year career and still racked up 1,400 yards in his second season while battling his injuries.

The issue is not whether or not the Bears should retain Forte. He’s proved he is a capable back that can handle a heavy workload and can be the focal point of an offense. The issue instead is when Forte should get his payday, and the Bears should wait until next offseason to compensate him.

If Forte gets hurt again in 2011, that’ll be two injury-plagued seasons in just four years, which would give caution to the Bears about giving him a big contract. However, if Forte stays healthy and produces again, the Bears can give him a well-deserved extension.

Taylor would then have just two years remaining on his front-loaded deal and the Bears could probably cut him after the third year without taking a huge hit, if they needed his salary for a different position.

The last thing Forte should do is miss offseason workouts and hold out of training camp much like Devin Hester did prior to the 2008 season. That would hinder the Bears’ progress and could backfire against Forte like it has for many other running backs who have done the same.

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