Is Forte Ready to Be the Starter?

The Chicago Bears may have drafted Matt Forte with the idea of him replacing Cedric Benson, but they had no idea it would be this early. Now that Benson's lackluster career in the Windy City has come to an end, Forte appears to be the leading contender for the starting job. Is the rookie ready?

With the demise of Cedric Benson, rookie Matt Forte will go to training camp as the team's de facto featured running back.

And that's just fine with the second-round pick from Tulane, who believes he can handle the major responsibility of resurrecting a rushing offense that was the worst in the NFL last season in average gain per attempt.

"I'm not going to sit here and doubt myself or my talent or anything," the 6-2, 216-pound Forte said. "I believe that I can come in and play. I have the ability. It's going to take a lot of work."

Forte worked overtime for the Green Wave last season, carrying 361 times for 2,127 yards (second in the nation), 23 touchdowns and a 5.9-yard average per carry. Benson averaged a career-worst 3.4 yards per carry in 2007 for the Bears, who as a team averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per try, so the bar isn't set very high for Forte.

Although the Bears have yet to run a single full-speed play in pads and won't until the training camp practices start July 23, offensive coordinator Ron Turner has been impressed with Forte.

"He's been tremendous," Turner said. "He's a very intelligent young man. He's been here 10 practices or whatever counting OTAs and minicamp, and right now we're not afraid to call anything in our offense with him – first down, second down, third down. Sure he's made some mistakes and he's got some things to clean up technique-wise and assignment-wise and all that, but we'll continue to work on that. But he's a very bright young man who can do a lot of things."

Part of Forte's allure on draft day was his versatility. He caught 103 passes for 985 yards at Tulane and showed a willingness to stick his nose in as a blocker, making him a reliable third-down option – a designation Benson never achieved. Forte will encounter a more complicated third-down blocking scheme in the NFL, but he is confident he can be a complete back even though he's aware it won't happen overnight.

"It's a process," he said. "I'm just a rookie coming in, so it's going to be a long process. That's why we go to training camp. That's why we're out here now in OTAs learning the plays, learning the system and getting used to the speed of the game."

RB Cedric Benson
Warren Wimmer Photography

If the Bears don't sign a free agent running back off the NFL scrap heap to replace Benson, the Bears would be left with only seventh-year veteran backup Adrian Peterson and second-year situational runner Garrett Wolfe behind Forte. At just 5-7 and 186 pounds, Wolfe's role figures to be primarily as a receiver in passing situations or a change-of-pace back.

Peterson is one of the Bears' best special teamers and has performed well as a receiver out of the backfield in passing situations. He had a career-best 51 catches last season, which was second best on the team, and his 420 receiving yards were fourth best on the Bears. Peterson's 151 carries last season exceeded his total from his first five NFL seasons, but he averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and his longest run was for just 21 yards.

Forte doesn't see his niche in the Bears' offense changing much without Benson in the mix.

"It's probably the same role that they brought me in here for," he said. "I'm a pass-catcher, runner and a pass-blocker."

But with Benson gone, Forte will have to be fast-tracked into a more significant role than previously envisioned, even though the team made it clear on draft day that the rookie would contend for the starting job.

"I see him as a guy who is very talented," Turner said. "He's been in a system similar to ours. They asked him in college to do a lot of things in the passing game, protection-wise and route-wise that we do. That gives him a little bit of an edge, and that's why, looking at the film, why I liked him so much. And I thought he was a good fit for what we do."

Forte seems to embrace the idea of becoming the Bears' go-to guy sooner rather than later, although he has been politically correct when discussing his situation.

"I didn't want to sit on the bench and sit back and relax," he said. "Everybody wants to play, so everybody comes in with the mindset to learn the whole playbook and act you're like a starter and learn behind these veterans and be like them."

The Bears are hoping that Forte acts differently – on and off the field – than the player he's succeeding.

Benson's future in professional football is cloudy at best
The people at Halas Hall who were closest to Benson expressed their feelings about him Wednesday, two days after he was released following a pair of recent alcohol-related arrests in a 35-day span.

RB Garrett Wolfe
M. Spencer Green/AP Images

"It's always tough to lose one of your players," running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "He has a lot of friends in our running back room. We've had numerous conversations, and I like Ced. Ced was alright with me, and you hate to see this happen. But we all have a responsibility. We're responsible to a lot of people, and we've got to handle our business."

Benson's DWI arrest early Saturday morning convinced the Bears' decision-makers that he wasn't handling his business off the field, and last year's 3.4-yard average per carry was evidence enough that they could live without his production on the field. But Wolfe said he will miss Benson.

"Me and Cedric were close," said Wolfe, one of few teammates who could say that about Benson. "You know things are expected of us, and obviously the staff felt Cedric didn't do things that were necessary. But Cedric was a good friend. He's a great teammate. He's been nothing but a help to me since Day 1."

Wolfe had yet to speak with Benson but was planning to do so soon.

Spencer was Maurice Clarett's position coach for the one year the enigmatic and troubled running back spent at Ohio State before trying (unsuccessfully) to enter the NFL Draft a year early – and then failing miserably as a pro when he did enter the league. But unlike Clarett, currently incarcerated for armed robbery and aggravated assault, Benson at least played in the NFL for three seasons.

"Obviously I'm saddened and disappointed that it did happen to him and that we had to let him go," Spencer said. "I've kind of been in a little situation before where you want things to happen for an individual who's having a little difficulty, and it hasn't gone right. As a coach, you really can't control everything. All you can do is tell them what they should and shouldn't do and hope that they do it."

Because he's just 25 and had looked good physically in offseason practices after suffering a season-ending fractured ankle last season, Benson could be an attractive pickup for another team willing to give him a fresh start. But that's no guarantee, according to Spencer, who was asked if he thought Benson would play in the NFL again.

"I have no idea," Spencer said.

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