Bears appear to have leverage in money battle with Forte

Though he compares favorably with top backs, it appears club doesn't value him comparably

Sometimes it seems the closer the Bears get to training camp, the further they are from signing Matt Forte to a new contract.

In fairness, negotiations have been hush-hush, so we really don't know where the sides are. But the outward signs are not optimistic.

With help from four personnel men, a team negotiator and a respected player agent, the Tribune examined the Forte dilemma, and how it could be solved.

How Forte stacks up

To determine how NFL teams evaluate Forte, I asked four front office men to rank the top running backs. For purposes of salary slotting, teams often will place players in tiers.

A "blue" player is a difference maker. A "red-plus" player is a notch below a difference maker and a notch higher than above average.

Here are the blue running backs:

1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings: He clearly is the best, assuming he can come back from his torn ACL.

2. Chris Johnson, Titans: He needs to have a bounce back season to stay in this category.

3. Arian Foster, Texans: This power runner gives the Texans an identity and is a new entrant into the elite category.

Here are the red-plus running backs:

5. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: "He has been doing it forever behind a so-so offensive line," an AFC front office man said.

6. Ray Rice, Ravens: Rice's all around-game elevates his value.

7. Forte: 7. An NFC personnel man pointed out if career numbers alone defined Forte, he might not compare favorably to some of the top backs. But he also pointed out he does a lot for the Bears.

Said another front office man: "Forte can do everything. That's why I like him. He doesn't have any weaknesses. You wish he were more physical at times and played more to his size (6 feet 2, 220 pounds), but he's very athletic and so well rounded."

8. LeSean McCoy, Eagles: "He's more elusive than Forte, a better space player and he gives you more big plays," a personnel director said. "He is electric. Forte doesn't create on his own as much. But he has more size and power. Both have good vision, good hands. McCoy is faster and scares you more in the open field. It's a tossup between them as to who you rather would have."

9. Frank Gore, 49ers: He has a career rushing average of 4.7 yards, and he is a fine receiver.

10. Steven Jackson, Rams: He has had seven straight 1,000 yard rushing seasons, playing for mostly bad teams, but is "descending," at 29 in July according to one personnel director.

11. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks: He has a nice combination of power and burst, and can attack a defense inside or outside.

What other backs make

When teams and agents negotiate deals, they look for comparable players' contracts. Now that we have established where Forte ranks as a player, we can look at what his peers make.

Player … Years … Avg./year … Guarantee

1. Peterson … 7 … $14.2M … $36M

2. Johnson … 6 … $13.5M … $30M

3. McCoy … 5 … $9M … $20.7M

4. Foster … 5 … $8.7M … $20.75M

5. Jackson … 6 … $8.62M … $20.5M

6. Williams … 5 … $8.6M … $21M

7. Jones-Drew … 5 … $7.63M … $17.45M

8. Lynch … 4 … $7.5M … $17M

There are four deals that have particular significance for Forte.

1. The Panthers signed Williams last July to a deal that is a little out of whack from the rest of the market. Scouts who spoke with the Tribune rated him a "red" player, yet he is paid like a borderline red-plus and blue player.

His contract has been toxic in the Forte negotiations.

2. On Thursday the Eagles set a new bar for red-plus running backs such as McCoy. Forte's agent, Adisa Bakari, is likely to set this contract as his new target for Forte. It should be noted McCoy is 21/2 years younger than Forte (26).

3. In 2009, Jones-Drew signed a five-year extension with an average per year of $7.63 million and $17.45 million in guarantees. The Bears might want a similar deal for Forte.

But with three years remaining on the contract, Jones-Drew has been a no-show for offseason activities because he wants a new contract. His agent? Bakari.

4. Rice may be the running back whose value is most similar to Forte's. And like Forte, he has the franchise tag.

It is believed he is seeking $10 million per year, and he is not likely to get it from the Ravens.

Complicating factors

Here are the primary reasons Forte does not have new paper:

-- The franchise tag: From a financial perspective, it might make more sense for the Bears to franchise Forte in 2012 at $7.7 million and in 2013 at $9.24 million (120 percent of the 2012 franchise number) than it does to sign him to a five- or six-year deal worth say, an average of $9 million per year with more than $20 million guaranteed.

After two years of using the tag, the Bears could decide to part ways with Forte, who will be 28 then, or they could try to sign him to a longer contract at that point. He would be a free agent without strings.

But from a locker room perspective, it probably makes more sense to reward a loyal soldier now.

-- Bears missed window of opportunity: The time to sign Forte was last offseason, but the Bears probably undervalued him then. It is believed they offered him a little more than $6 million per year.

Since that time, Forte's price has gone up in part because he had a career year and because the deals of Williams, Foster and McCoy, among others, have driven up the market.

If the Bears had offered $7.5 per year last summer, it's possible Forte would be under contract now.

-- Value of the position: Teams value running backs differently. Some believe they are fairly interchangeable and replaceable, even if they are gifted, and that the running game is more about mentality than ability. Some don't trust running backs past their 29th birthday, given the history of short careers.

"Every team has a different scheme, style, a different home field and value for the position and subsequently the individual," said a front office man who negotiates contracts for his team.

The franchise of Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, George McAfee, Gale Sayers and Walter Payton, oddly enough, apparently does not value running backs as much as some franchises.

Forte and Bakari were hoping the general manager changeover from Jerry Angelo to Phil Emery would change this. But given the continued stalemate, it appears little has changed in how the Bears view Forte's value.

Finding middle ground

What has become clear: Forte seemingly is not going to get all he wants from the Bears. And if they get Forte to sign a long-term deal, they likely are going to have to give more than they think he's worth.

I asked a respected player agent what he thought a fair deal for Forte would be. He said he would agree to a five-year contract with an average per year of $8 million, a three-year average per year of $8.5 million and $19.5 million in guarantees.

The team negotiator gave me similar numbers when asked for a fair contract for Forte, but indicated he would be willing to go as high as $8.5 million on the average per year with $20 million guaranteed. That would put the total potential value at $42.5 million.

It is believed Bakari was asking for $8.5 per year before the McCoy deal. That may be more than the Bears are willing to pay.

In the absence of a mutual compromise, the franchise tag may have to do.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei
CHICAGO

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