Matt Forte (203 CAR, 997 YDS, 4.9 AVG, 3 TD; 52 REC, 490 YDS, 1 TD)
Forte was having the best season of his career and was a candidate for NFC Offensive Player of the Year before a knee injury in Week 13 kept him out of the team's final four contests. Yet despite the missed time, Forte was named to his first Pro Bowl. He led the league in yards from scrimmage for most of the year and was a homerun threat every time he touched the ball. Forte showed exceptional field vision this season and his ability in the open field was nearly unmatched. He was just as effective as a pass catcher. He led the team in targets (76) and led all other Bears players in yards after the catch by nearly 300 yards. Pro Football Focus ranked 67 NFL running backs that played at least 240 snaps last season. Forte ranked fourth on that list.
Marion Barber (114 ATT, 422 YDS, 3.7 AVG, 6 TD; 5 REC, 50 YDS)
Barber was brought in during the offseason to serve as Chicago's short-yardage back. For the majority of the season, Barber did just that, converting on numerous third-and-short and goal-line situations. He dealt with calf injuries to start and end the year, forcing him to miss five games. Barber started two contests after Forte went down and picked up more than 100 yards against the Denver Broncos in Week 14. Yet in that game, Barber made two huge gaffes – running out of bounds late in the game and an overtime fumble – that essentially cost the Bears the game. His 3.7 yards per carry was nothing to write home about and he was a non-factor as a pass catcher.
RB Kahlil Bell
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
Kahlil Bell (79 ATT, 337 YDS, 4.3 AVG; 19 REC, 133 YDS, 1 TD)
Bell produced mostly as a special teams player this year. He had just 11 carries through the team's first 11 games. Yet Bell's touches increased with the injury to Forte. When Barber also went down late in the season, Bell was thrust into the starting role. Over the club's last five contests, he rushed 68 times for 314 yards (4.6 ypc) and added 19 catches for 133 yards and 1 TD. From that small sample size, Bell showed well as both a runner and receiver. He runs very hard and does not go down easily. He lacks ideal open-field ability but his soft hands and hard-nosed running between the tackles could make him a solid backup. The only negative with Bell is that he fumbled three times in his two games as a starter.
This was easily one of the most-valuable units on the team. Chicago's rushers gained more than 2,000 yards on the season, only the second Bears group to do so since 1990. Matt Forte was one of the top players in the league, at any position, when he was healthy. Barber, despite a few crucial mistakes, served well as a short-yardage back, and Bell was a very pleasant surprise.
One of the biggest distractions in 2011 was Forte's contract situation. The fourth-year veteran finished up his rookie contract this season and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. His agent, Adisa Bakari, could not work out a deal with former GM Jerry Angelo on an extension. Forte wants to stay but he wants to be paid like the elite back that he is. Sources say he wants at least $20 million guaranteed, yet the Bears were reportedly only willing to go as high as $14 million.
It's assumed the first priority for Chicago's new GM will be to get Forte signed to a long-term deal. Yet if the two sides can't come to an agreement, the team will place the franchise tag on him. His projected salary under the tag would be roughly $8 million, significantly more than the $550,000 he made last year. Either way, he'll be in the Navy and orange in 2012.
Barber's mistakes toward the end of the season likely earned him his pink slip. Chicago's coaches have expressed much confidence in Bell, so it's doubtful they'll want to pay good money for Barber and his 3.7 yards per carry.
Bell is a restricted free agent. Based on his production late in the season, the club will likely give him a shot to be the main backup to Forte next season. If he can cure his fumbling issues, he will make a quality change-of-pace back going forward.
One wild card here is Armando Allen. He spent most of the year on the team's practice squad, yet was activated for the final two games due to the injuries to Barber and Forte. He's a small (5-8, 199), shifty runner with good speed. He was a rookie last year, so he has the potential to develop into a role similar to that of Darren Sproles with the New Orleans Saints. Expect the team to give him a shot at earning the third RB spot next season.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.