Bears free agency preview: Running backs

ESPNChicago examines potential unrestricted free agents at positions of need for the Bears.

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The Chicago Bears invested heavily in their ground game last offseason when they awarded lucrative contracts to Matt Forte (four years, $30.4 million, $17.1 million guaranteed) and Michael Bush (four years, $14 million, $7 million guaranteed), only to see both players have relatively modest seasons amid talk that neither was used enough.

Forte managed to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards (1,094) for the third time in his five-year NFL career, but his average yards-per-carry fell from 4.9 to 4.4, and he also set career-lows in receptions with 44 for 340 yards. However, Forte remains one of the top all-purpose backs in the league and should be one of the key offensive pieces moving forward under new Bears coach Marc Trestman.

Injuries seemed to limit Bush, who dealt with shoulder and rib issues during his first season in Chicago after a successful four-year stint with the Oakland Raiders. But even when Bush was healthy last season, he did little more than provide the Bears with an effective and powerful goal-line back.

Bush views himself as much more than simply a battering ram in the red zone, but he only carried the ball 114 times and caught nine passes in 13 games. In Bush's final year in Oakland, he ran the ball 256 times and had 37 receptions while starting nine of the Raiders' 16 regular season games. Everybody knew Bush came to Chicago to back up Forte, but Bush probably believed he would see more action in the Bears' backfield when he signed.

With Forte ($7.175) and Bush ($3.550) scheduled to eat up a combined $10.725 million in salary cap space in 2013, the Bears' only objective this offseason might be to upgrade at the No. 3 running back spot, although options do exist internally.

It was a strange season for Kahlil Bell, who seemed to cost himself a sizeable amount of money when he denied the Bears' request to take a pay cut in the preseason, instead of accepting their reduced offer. So instead of essentially being assured of a job and a weekly pay check, Bell opted for his release and ultimately spent five weeks on the Bears' roster over two separate stints, while also spending time with the New York Jets. The Bears could kick around the idea of re-signing Bell, an unrestricted free agent who runs extremely hard, or perhaps the No. 3 job goes to Armando Allen, an exclusive rights free agent.

Unless the Bears stay in-house, the organization's best route is probably to draft a running back to improve depth in the backfield. But just to cover all of our bases, here are a couple intriguing unrestricted free agent rushers scheduled to hit the open market.

With Forte and Bush already in the fold, the Bears probably won't be interested in the upper echelon UFA running backs such as St. Louis' Steven Jackson, New York's Shonn Greene or Miami's Reggie Bush.

Danny Woodhead, New England Patriots: Woodhead is valuable because he is a dual purpose threat who racked up nearly 750 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns last year while starting just two games. He is an effective player who can thrive in a creative offensive system.

Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys: Jones never lived up to expectations after the Cowboys selected him in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft ahead of Ray Rice and Matt Forte, but he is a serviceable reserve running back with kickoff return experience.

Bernard Scott, Cincinnati Bengals: Scott's career was on the rise until he tore his ACL in early October and was lost for the year. There will be plenty of questions about his knee in free agency, but Scott was a solid complementary rusher before he got hurt.

Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers: It all fell apart for Mendenhall in Pittsburgh after such a promising start in the NFL when the Chicagoland area native and former University of Illinois star rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2009 and 2010. But Mendenhall did not perform well when he came back from a knee injury in 2012, then made it worse when he failed to show up for a game late in the year which led to a suspension. The prospects of Mendenhall landing a starting job in free agency appear to be slim, but his odds of being a coveted reserve are more favorable.

Ronnie Brown, San Diego Chargers: The primary obstacle for a seasoned player such as Brown with eight NFL seasons is the fact he costs more money than most teams want to pay, even at the veteran minimum. But Brown held his own last year in San Diego in spot duty, especially as a receiver out of the backfield where he had 49 catches for 371 yards.

Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants: The Giants cut Bradshaw this week after six years and a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Bradshaw dealt with a variety of injuries and was set to earn $4.25 million in 2013 at the time of his release.