Given Matt Forte's monstrous production and the indisputable fact his value only continues to rise, the dirty side of contract negotiations kick in with the Bears reportedly planning to use their franchise tag, barring a breakthrough between now and February.
The development certainly wasn’t unexpected. But it opens the door for exploration into what the tag could mean for Forte, 25, should the Bears choose to delay the running back’s availability in free agency by using the franchise designation on multiple occasions.
Forte enters his fifth year in 2012 at age 26, and there’s sufficient evidence to suggest the Bears wouldn’t be making a mistake by signing him to a long-term deal by then. The common perception seems to be that a running back’s production tapers off after four years, but according to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s not always the case.
Focusing on players that had already been well established before their fifth season (Tiki Barber and Thomas Jones were excluded), ESPN Stats & Information examined a handful of notable running backs that played seasons five through seven since 2000, and excluded players that aren’t playing in their eighth season in 2011 to allow for additional career perspective (which excludes players such as Steven Jackson and Michael Turner).
Only two running backs -- Shaun Alexander and Corey Dillon -- of the six studied failed to rush for more than 1,200 yards in their seventh season. Two others -- Fred Taylor and Edgerrin James -- enjoyed multiple 1,000-yard seasons after Year 7, while Dillon’s best season didn’t come until Year 8 (career highs with 345 rushes for 1,635 yards).
Teams can use the franchise tag on a player three separate times with significant increases on one-year guaranteed salaries for each additional year the player is tagged.
The 2012 franchise tag for running backs is projected at $7.71 million (Forte was willing to take $7.8 million prior to the season, according to multiple sources), with that figure growing the next year to more than $9 million.
So looking at this optimistically from Forte’s standpoint, the running back could be in line to receive more guaranteed compensation in the next two years -- if he’s franchised -- than what the Bears offered (between $13 and $14 million guaranteed) prior to the season over six years, which is why the running back won’t sign the team’s latest deal.
“That's not something I'm looking forward to," Forte said Friday on "Rome is Burning" on ESPN. "I don't want a one-year deal. I want a long-term extension. I think if they use the franchise tag that's kind of a cheap way to go out. I want a long-term extension. I've been drafted by Chicago. I want to stay there so it's not something I'm looking forward to. Everybody who is doing anything no matter what you're doing if you're working and doing an exceptional job, you want your boss to kind of notice that and not a pat on the back but compensate you for what you're doing. That's in anything you're doing. It kind of makes you feel undervalued."
There’s also the injury risk, which Forte feels he’s assumed since signing his rookie deal in 2008. The running back has insurance policies in place to mitigate the risk, but the policies only pay out if Forte suffers a career-ending injury.
“There is the risk of injury, but I just pray before every game that God keeps me healthy out on the field, and I continue to do good work out there,” Forte said. “It’s really up to them to do the contract thing. Me and my agent, our door is always open.”
From the team’s perspective, surely the club is strongly considering Forte’s potential shelf life in determining a fair deal. Forte averaged a little more than 327 touches over his first three seasons and is on pace for 370. It doesn’t help Forte that Johnson has floundered since signing his extension.
It’s also worth noting that Chicago director of player personnel Tim Ruskell experienced the downside to paying out big money to a running back in 2006, when as president of the Seattle Seahawks he gave Alexander an eight-year deal worth $62 million ($15 million guaranteed) only to see the 2005 Most Valuable Player hobble to less than mediocre production for the rest of his career.
The difference is that Alexander was 29 when he signed that deal, while Forte is just 25.
So while there’s tremendous risk for a team signing a running back to a second contract, the Bears must realistically calculate the potential pitfalls and act accordingly.
Apparently, the organization, as general manager Jerry Angelo put it, has drawn its “line in the sand.”
In approximately two weeks when teams can no longer use 2011 salary cap room to extend players -- that line, or better yet the franchise tag -- likely becomes reality.