NFL news has subsisted on a never-ending cascade of lawsuits, or so it seems, in the days since the April draft. Not even the irrationally exuberant reports from your team's minicamp can crack the news cycle these days, at least not for any length of time. Wedged in between the legal squabbles and corners turned are a handful of high profile contract standoffs. Darrell Revis, Dew Brees and Cliff Avril are all in various states of strain with their team, the later two because of franchise tags. All of those situations are likely to be resolved soon enough in a way that you would expect, i.e. with a suitable pay raise. In Chicago, things may be different.
Bears running back Matt Forte is also sitting out of team workouts this spring, looking for a long-term deal instead of the franchise tag. Unlike similar situations with players unhappy with the one-year tender, Forte's case is one worth watching because he is a running back, a running back in a league that puts a premium on throwing the ball.
Player contracts in professional football tend to follow rules similar to what you would expect. Imagine Matt F. worked at the three-story, brown brick office complex off Route 3. Since 2008, Matt F. has been processing spreadsheets with the best of them, one of the best in his office, certainly the best in his department. By now, he should be in line for a raise or a promotion, right?
Professional football players can usually count on a raise under those circumstances too, probably with more certainty than a schlub in a suburban office park. But Matt Forte is a running back.
The franchise tender would pay Forte $7.7 million this year, his age 26 season. That doesn't exactly make him an old man among running backs, but hitting the market at 27 and a year removed from a strained MCL that cost him four games could compromise his asking price next year, if the Bears don't ink him to a long term deal.
This looks like it might be the best time for Forte to strike a new deal. Age is still on his side, and he is coming off another season in which his worked proved to be particularly beneficial to the Bears. Chicago started winning again once they leaned more on Forte and less on jay Cutler and seven-step dropbacks behind a woeful group of pass protectors.
On the other hand, every season in the NFL offers a new reminder that running backs are a fairly replaceable commodity. That is becoming clear in Chicago as well where free agent Michael Bush has crowded a backfield that belonged exclusively to Forte.
Michael Bush is no backup running back either. As a replacement for an injured Darren McFadden, Bush accumulated 1,395 yards from scrimmage last season, including 977 on the ground. Though his game relies more on power than Forte, Bush is more than capable of carrying the bulk of the load, especially now that the Bears should have a few more options in the passing game.
What a fair deal for Forte would look like is a matter of opinion. Forte has said that he is not seeking a contract on par with Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson. Still, he and the Bears clearly have a different view of his value.
Forte loses leverage every day that training camp gets closer and closer. He has until July 16 to sign a long-term deal with the Bears, and with Bush on the roster, the Bears have no need to panic.
The smartest thing for Forte to do at this point would be to sign his franchise tender and embrace a time share with Bush. He would be one of the highest paid running backs for 2012. More importantly, a reduced workload will keep some of the wear and tear off his knees and other body part susceptible to injury.
If Forte can assuage himself with $7.7 million next season, which would be a nice raise over what he made last year, it should find himself in a very good position once free agency opens in the spring of 2013, a target for teams with cash to spend and in need of a primary running back, or at least a high profile part of a pair.