Offseason Review: The Ball Carriers

ForteAs I write this series, I’m struck by how different the tone is depending on which side of the ball I’m covering. For defensive positions, I tend to question who will be back (if at all) and who will be starting in 2014. On offense, things are much more concrete; center, right tackle, and the third wide receiver are the only real positions with semi-question marks. And even then, those players weren’t bad. Earl Bennett wasn’t Chris Conte, he’s just expensive for his position. Roberto Garza wasn’t horrible, he’s just a bit old. Jordan Mills was just a rookie, and he played better than the rookies on the defensive side of the ball.

I know this is an angle that has been hammered into the ground, but it truly is fascinating to contemplate the fact that Chicago’s offense is much more stable and secure than the defense. That’s quite a departure, and I’m not sure I remember the last time that was the case. It certainly wasn’t the case throughout the Lovie Smith era, and I don’t remember the Dick Jauron teams being offensively focused. (I’m open to correction on that; I was only 12 when Jauron was hired.) And the Wannstedt teams of the 90’s were certainly more painful than anything offensively, unless you’re a bigger Steve Walsh fan than I was at the time.

In any case, at this point in the offseason, it’s much easier to project next year’s offense, and that’s certainly true with today’s look at the running backs and fullbacks.

Matt Forte, RB

I really don’t know that I can say enough good things about Matt Forte’s 2013 season. He’s obviously been good in the past, but he flourished under the new coaching staff, setting career high marks in rushing yards (1,339), rushing touchdowns (9), receptions (74!), and receiving yards (594). Those yardage numbers total 1,933 yards from scrimmage, good for third in the NFL. (Interestingly, Alshon was seventh by that metric.) Forte played a staggering 88% of the available offensive snaps, and despite his massive number of touches, he fumbled just twice. He’s as steady as they come.

In fact, in terms of all-around ability, I’m not sure how many running backs in the game are more talented. Adrian Peterson is a freak of nature, obviously. LeSean McCoy is also incredible, and Jamaal Charles put up some big numbers as well. But other than Peterson, I don’t think any back stands out as being definitively better than Matt. He’s certainly a top-5 player at his position, and considering how his talent drives both the running and passing attacks for the Trestman offense, that’s an incredible weapon to have.

If you’re looking for a potential downside, he did just turn 28 in December, meaning he has just two more seasons before he hits the dreaded “30”; often seen as a death knell for running backs. I’m not sure I buy that as hard fact, but  there’s a number that concerns me more: 1,551. That’s how many carries he’s had in his career; when you tack on his 833 college carries (including 361 from his senior year; that’s just staggering) you can see that he’s not a low-mileage 28.

As ESPN’s K.C. Joyner writes in this piece (Insider-only), out of the 69 running backs who have made it to 1,500 carries, only 32 of them have gone on to reach 2,000 carries in their career. (Of course, Joyner then lists Forte as the #2 fantasy keeper option among running backs.) It’s obviously not a strict causation, as there’s no way to factor in the age at which any of those players reached 1,500 carries; it stands to reason that a player who reached that number at 31 as opposed to 28 is obviously less likely to continue on to 2,000. But in terms of long-term planning for the position, it’s something to consider as Forte enters year three of his four year deal.

But it’s telling that to find negatives, I have to try to conjure them from thin air; in terms of what we’ve seen on the field, I have a hard time finding fault with Forte. He’s a wonderful, exciting player, and if he can come close to repeating his 2013 performance next season, I think Chicago fans (and fantasy owners everywhere) will be thrilled.

Michael Bush, RB

Bush played sparingly under Trestman, a victim of Matt Forte’s durability and versatility. The only perceived skill advantage Bush possesses is in short yardage situations, but how many times did we see him fail to convert at the goal line? (Too many.) He had some decent seasons in Oakland, and the Bears signed him to a fairly rich contract before the 2012 season; that was in the middle of the Matt Forte contract saga. It was common thinking at the time that the Bears wanted both leverage in negotiations and insurance should Forte hold out and miss regular season games. Bush ended up serving as a backup, getting 24% of the offensive snaps in his first year as a Bear. That number fell to 13% in 2013, as Marc Trestman’s offense heavily featured Matt Forte’s all-around abilities.

All in all, a forgettable season for Michael, and given his age (he’ll be 30 in June) and his cap situation (based on my understanding, the Bears would save nearly $2 million in cap room by cutting him) I think he might be looking for a new team this offseason. From an asset allocation standpoint, especially given the plug-and-play nature of the modern NFL running back, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a high-priced veteran backup. And if a team were to go that route, that player would likely have to bring more to the table than Michael Bush is likely capable of going forward.

Michael Ford, RB

Michael Ford was an undrafted rookie last season. He made the team, and on five occasions he spelled Devin Hester on kick returns. He didn’t see any offensive action, but he did play 39% of the Bears special teams snaps, and it’s likely that he’ll continue on in that role in 2014. If Bush is cut, Ford might very well get a shot at the backup running back slot; he scored a preseason touchdown, and has decent physical gifts. I haven’t seen enough of him to give a reasonable scouting report, but given his dirt cheap contract and his ability to return kicks, I’d think he has a very good shot of making the roster once again.

Tony Fiammetta, FB

Before the Week 17 finale against Green Bay, the Bears announced that Tony Fiammetta had signed a two-year extension to remain a Bear; the deal totaled somewhere around $1.6 million. That news was met with shrugs, as Fiammetta was never a featured player in the offense; not surprising, given the receding prominence of the fullback position in the NFL.

But the Bears apparently saw something in the veteran, likely grading him highly as a blocker. So he’s back in the fold going forward, which is important for two reasons. One, the obvious: he’s a player the front office likes, and he won’t be costing much. Two, the less obvious: it’s one less question mark in the offseason plan. Had Fiammetta walked, the Bears would not have had an obvious replacement on the roster. That would have meant scouting resources, free agent dollars, and perhaps even a draft pick spent on the fullback position; I don’t have to tell you that all of those things are likely better spent on just about any defensive position. It’s one less thing to worry about, and that certainty alone has value as Phil Emery turns his attention to the defensive rebuild.

Jay Rigdon is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation Bears, and can also be found @BearsBN on Twitter.

25 responses to “Offseason Review: The Ball Carriers”

  1. Matt

    I think Forte keeps himself in incredible shape (including sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, if I’m not mistaken), so if there’s a RB to succeed past age 30, I could see it be him.

    1. mdavis

      agreed, but still wouldnt mind a #2 back taking at least a couple of those carriers away, just to try and keep him fresh.

  2. Adam

    If I were running the Bears draft room, I would look to trade down later in the 1st round if they could get an additional 2nd rounder. This draft is deep with D-linemen and d-backs. They could target Aaron Donald, Louis Nix, Stephen Tuitt, Dee Ford, Dennard, or Calvin Pryor in the end of 1st round. Then they would be able to get 2 or 3 players like Jimmy Ward, Ahmad Dixon, Loucheiz Purifoy, Scott Crichton, Dominique Easley, Chris Borland, Dan McCullers or Stan Jean-Baptiste in the 2nd round and 3rd rounds. As bad as this defense is, the Bears need as many players as they can get.

    1. mdavis

      i agree. defintely think they should try and move back a few spots, get another 2, maybe a 4.

      1. frank

        Not a bad idea. My concern when trading down is whether you’re giving up a possible high-impact player for a couple of role players or minimal upgrades. I’d take the high impact player–one high impact DE or DT for example, can make the whole defense better. We don’t have much of a draft history with Emery to go on either–very hit and miss so far. For example, half the 2012 draft isn’t even on the roster anymore. Jeffery–definite impact player. McClellin and Frey? Not so much, so far.

        1. mdavis

          good point. I think it depends what they are targeting. and, in turn different grades on these guys. If they view Jernigan, Donald, and say Hageman graded out the same, and they can move back 5 spots and still get one, i think you do that. i dont want them to trade out of the first round entirely, but if they are sitting there at 14, and theres a run on QBs, a team may try to move up or get back into the 1st round, for a big haul of picks. So basically i think itll come down to who they are targeting, grades on differnt guys they are targeting. and the potential haul of picks. Also what they do in free agency should be very telling to us as well.

          1. frank

            I agree–if they grade a number of players closely enough and are sure they can get one of them later, then a move down makes sense. What they do in free agency will be huge–it will pretty much set up the entire draft board. And I hear Martellus Bennett is trying to get his brother (Michael, DL with the Seahawks) to sign with Chicago.

            1. mdavis

              yup been hearing that as well. I think bmarsh has been carrying that banner too? he’d be a nice fit, he almost reminds me a bit of an Alex Brown type (who i ironically enough work with now). He’s not going to put huge numbers up, but I think he’s a consistent 7-9 sacks a year type of guy, and he won’t break the bank because of that. something in the 3-4 year $9-12 mil guarenteed range might get it done? i’m just taking a guess.

              1. frank

                I forget–has Bennett been playing on the inside or the outside? If they can get a consistent 7-9 sacks from him and Wootton, that’d be huge. Still on the fence about Peppers though–on the one hand, if this year was a temporary dip due to the injuries and subsequent lack of talent around him, and you think he can be a 10 sack guy again, you have to keep him, although the cap hit is huge–maybe under a renegotiated deal. But if this is the first sign of decaying effectiveness, you can’t keep him, especially at that cap number.

                1. mdavis

                  i believe he was on the outside 1st and 2nd down, bumped in on nickel situations. but dont quote me on that. has good size at 6’4″ 275ish? but i think he’s more of a true DE than anything.

                  i just don’t see any way they can keep peppers. the cap number is insane, and at 35, i’m just not convinced he’s going to make a huge rebound. he was non existenet even before all the injuries if i remember correctly.

                  1. frank

                    I’m wondering too, though, if the hamstring injury that held him back during training camp was more serious than anyone was letting on. If he did come back, it’d have to be on a renegotiated deal. He still had 6 or 7 sacks. I don’t know about a huge turnaround, but if he can still get 8-10 sacks for less money, it may be worth it for another year–as one less spot of immediate need.They’d still have to find someone to replace him though.

                    1. mdavis

                      right and that could be the hang up. but you’re right absolutely needs to renegotiate. and now that i’m thinking of it i don’t know where Bennett plays. Because they have Clemons, Avril, and Irvin on that Seahwaks D….that’s a lot of pass rushers. But if they could bring in Bennett, re-sign Wootton, maybe pick up a D-end in round 1-3 and (if they move to a hybrid) use McClellan and possibly Washington in that hybrid pass rusher role, could be workin on something solid at that point.

  3. Why Javier Baez Could Be the Best and Other Bullets | Bleacher Nation | Chicago Cubs News, Rumors, and Commentary

    […] who haven’t been following, Jay has been reviewing the Bears’ positional groups, and he just hit one of the more eye-pleasing ones: the ball carriers. That means Matt Forte. That means […]

  4. Greenroom

    As a life-long Bears fan, I am just enamored with our offense. Besides the 85 bears, I cannot remember a better Bears offense. And honestly, I think besides Payton and the offensive line, this team is better offensively, or at least, better overall. (?) I cannot wait for next season when we will be in our 2nd year under Trestman. Cutler, Forte, Marshall, and Jeffrey are going to be firing on all cylinders next season. It should be scary good. Next Fall cannot come soon enough, its going to be exciting.

    1. mdavis

      dont forget martellus. i think they kept him in to help out the youngsters on the line a little more than they wanted, but still came away with 60 rec and 700+ yards. Big weapon. And I agree, this offense in year 2, can be scary good. They’ll have a better feel for route adjustments, reads, they can start to tweak different things like “well instead of a straight post lets give a corner cut at the top of 10 before taking it to the post”, things of that nature. Would love for them to find a complimentary type back for Forte, just to lessen the wear on him at least a little.

      1. frank

        Amazing what you can do with a TE when: 1) your OC actually knows that the position exists, and 2) you actually have one . . .

      2. abe

        I think we could also use a sneaky slot guy.

        1. frank

          That’s interesting–that’s the role Martz originally envisioned for Hester before Lovie nixed it, saying Hester was a #1 receiver and would remain on the outside. But I can see someone very quick and good in space playing in the slot.

          1. mdavis

            yeah certainly think they could use a a good slot option. don’t get me wrong, i like earl bennett, good hands, crisp routes, underrated quickness. but the guy cant stay on the field, health has been a major issue. i know they are high on marques wilson but he needs to hit the weight room this offseason. I think you can find those slot guys as UDFA, though. Certainly think they should bring in someone to compete with wilson and bennett though.

            1. frank

              Of course, Wilson is another tall receiver–6’2? 6’3? Put him in the slot with Marshall and Jeffery on the outside and Bennett at TE–that’s a matchup nightmare for any backfield, especially in the red zone.

              1. mdavis

                yeah i’ve seen Wilson listed at 6’4″ coming out of college, but i think he’s closer to 6’3″. so damn thin though, checks in at 180 or so? if he can put on 15-20 pounds, then its lookin pretty lethal across the board. But still wouldn’t mind a Julian Edelman type, 5’11” guy that can get those hot routes, work the middle, bubble screen type plays.

                1. mdavis

                  actually, with his name popping up in the news, a guy like Kain Coulter could be an intriguing 6-7 round/udfa type to work in the slot.

      3. Greenroom

        Great point. Martellus Bennett was definitely a great addition last year. This offense is going to roll. Pass me a beer, I cannot wait.

  5. Greg

    It’s been quite awhile since I’ve commented on this site, but I still check this site quite often an am very pleased that Brett has added bn bears to it. My hopes is it sticks cause what drew me to this site was the honest assertions&opinions . There’s so many garbage narrow minded fan websites out there that this is one of the few I hold in regard whether it’s the Cubs&Bears I respect Brett and the fellow writers to not only give their opinion but respect other’s for there’s.We all know that we are individuals and differ at times but for the people who can respectfully debate I’m all for that.So to sum up my short novel (sorry I’m a little adhd and go on tangents) I’d like to say thank you again to Brett, Luke, and now Jay for your time and efforts, keep up the good work gentleman!!! Who knows maybe we our paths will cross one day to have a beer and debate on the teams we love.

  6. DrReiCow

    Finally, an installment that brings a smile to my face.

    Moo 🙂