Bears still hoping to sign Forte long-term

The franchise tag gives Chicago more time to negotiate with Matt Fote on a deal that extends beyond next season; one that would placate the team's best offensive player.

To the surprise of no one, the Bears placed a franchise tag on running back Matt Forte, which will pay him approximately $7.7 million next season.

The Bears say they will continue to talk with Forte's agent, Adisa Bakari, on the long-term deal Forte wants. Next season's salary will still provide a nice raise from the $550,000 Forte made last season in the final year of his rookie contract.

Last season, the 2008 second-round draft pick turned down a reported $13 million to $14 million in guaranteed money on a multi-year deal. It's unlikely that the Bears will go much higher, even though Forte was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage at the time he suffered a season-ending sprained knee in Game 12 last season.

"Matt is an important part of our football team, and we chose to utilize the franchise tag to ensure he remains a Bear," general manager Phil Emery said. "We believe in Matt as a player and a person. Our intention is to continue to work to find common ground and keep Matt as a member of the Chicago Bears in 2012 and beyond."

RB Matt Forte
Kelley L. Cox/US Presswire

Despite his injury, Forte was able to play briefly in last month's Pro Bowl, becoming the first Bears running back to make the all-star game since Neal Anderson in 1991. And, despite missing four-plus games, Forte still piled up 997 rushing yards, averaging a career-best 4.9 yards per attempt, and he caught a team-best 52 passes for 490 yards.

The Bears and Forte have until July 15 to come to terms on a multi-year deal. The 6-2, 218-pound Tulane product can sign the franchise tender anytime from March 13 until the 10th week of the regular season. Failing a long-term deal, Forte could, as a protest, stay away from the Bears' offseason workouts, training camp and even into the regular season.

But even if Forte doesn't participate in any team activities in the offseason or training camp, the Bears won't worry about him not showing up in shape. He came to camp last year in the best shape of his life.

The value of running backs has trailed those of other skill positions in the NFL, as it has become much more of a passing league in recent years. But coach Lovie Smith said the Bears still value the ground game.

"The running back position will always have value for us," Smith said at the Scouting Combine. "With the elements and all the things we want to get done, just our basic philosophy, there will always be a premium placed on the running back."

Smith added that Forte, who has rushed for 4,233 in four years, is a valued member of the Bears. His 223 receptions the past four years are far more than any teammate. He had never missed start until last season.

"The team hasn't changed its approach to Matt Forte at all," Smith said. "I think we're on record (as to) how important Matt is to our organization. Matt's going to play his football for the Chicago Bears. So you start with that. In time hopefully he can get an agreement in place that suits Matt and we feel comfortable with. I think it's just a matter of time; that will happen eventually."

The last time the Bears used a franchise tag was in 2007 on linebacker Lance Briggs, who eventually signed a six-year, $36 million deal.

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