Bears may reach early for running back

Matt Forte has been a workhorse running back his entire career, dating back to Tulane. Considering his total workload, the Bears could be in the market for an early-round ball carrier.

A common belief in and around the NFL is that once running backs hit 29, their production begins to decline precipitously. At age 30, NFL ball carriers are the equivalent of 60-year-olds who are lucky to find jobs as backups.

Gone are the days where a 28-year-old Shaun Alexander gets an eight-year, $62-million contract – a deal the Seahawks, with tail between their legs, voided two years later.

In today's NFL, running backs are commodities in the same sense corn is an economical commodity. They are a dime a dozen, even the young ones. In the 2013 NFL draft, for the first time in league history, not a single running back was taken in the first round. And it appears history will repeat itself this year, as no ball carrier is expected to fall in the Top 32.

In 2008, the Chicago Bears spent a second-round pick on Matt Forte and have been blessed with his elite production the past six years. Forte, coming off his second straight Pro Bowl appearance last season, has developed into one of the top all-around backs in the league, finishing second in the league last year in rushing yards (1,339) and yards from scrimmage (1,933).

In 2014, Forte will again be the focal point of Marc Trestman's offense and there's no reason to believe he'll be anything but great again.

Or is there?

Matt Forte
David Banks/Getty

Forte is 28 currently and by season's end he'll be 29, the "drop off" age. Yet age isn't the only concern with Forte, who has been a workhorse running back his entire career, dating back to four seasons at Tulane.

During his collegiate career, Forte had 936 total touches (carries and receptions combined). In six seasons as a pro, he's accumulated 1,892 touches. So from 2004-2013, Forte has racked up 2,820 total touches.

Even more important than a running back's age is his workload and for Forte the past 10 years, it's been immense. He also had PCL surgery his junior year at Tulane and ACL surgery just three years ago.

So take a step back and look at what the Bears have in Forte: a 28-year-old who has been worked into the ground for 10 straight years, with two serious knee injuries during that time frame. He showed no signs of slowing down last year, so it's safe to assume he has one more good year left in him, but can the Bears really depend on Forte beyond next season?

If history has proven anything, it's that Forte is going to hit the wall within the next two years.

Behind Forte, the Bears have just Michael Ford, a 2013 undrafted free agent who didn't receive a single carry last season. That's it.

Most assume GM Phil Emery will go heavy on defensive payers in this year's draft, considering the embarrassing performance of Chicago's defense last season. Yet Emery has addressed a number of those needs in free agency, re-signing stalwarts Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, and going hog wild on the defensive line with six more signings, including the league's active sack leader Jared Allen.

A case could be made that the defense, in as far as the 11 starters go, is set. The Bears have viable options at every single position. Safety is still relatively weak but the club has three safeties that were starters for their respective teams last year. Emery may consider his work done on the defensive side of the ball.

And remember, Trestman is a glorified offensive coordinator. He wants weapons on the offensive side of the ball, particularly at running back. Dating back to his days as offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders around the turn of the century, Trestman has always relied heavily on his running backs, as both ball carriers and pass catchers, and it was no different with Forte last season.

Going forward, it's highly doubtful Trestman will be comfortable putting the bulk of his offense in the hands of an unproven, untested sixth-round pick littered with question marks. And that's exactly what will happen if the Bears wait to select a running back in this year's draft and then Forte goes down.

Considering all these factors, it's easy to see why the Bears might be targeting a running back in this year's draft as early as the second round. With Trestman at the helm, quarterback is the most important position on the team, followed closely by running back. So why wouldn't Emery have his eye on early-round ball carriers who can be the focal point of the offense post-Forte?

Sure, you can sometimes hit on late-round running backs and even undrafted free agents, but that's a crap shoot at best, particularly with this year's crop of ball carriers, which most feel is average at best. If the Bears want to continue to churn out offenses that can compete yearly with the likes of the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, they'll need a top-tier, well-rounded running back. Those don't typically come in the form of 7th rounders.

So while we all debate about whether the club should go cornerback, safety, linebacker or defensive tackle in the second round, don't be surprised if the Bears call out Ohio State's Carlos Hyde or Auburn's Tre Mason as the club's pick at 51st overall.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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