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.