The Chicago Bears put a lot of time and effort the past two years getting Matt Forte signed to a long-term deal, accomplishing the goal shortly before the start of training camp last season. They also shored up the backup position during the 2012 offseason, signing Michael Bush to a four-year deal.
Those two make a powerful one-two punch and should fit well the committee system coach Marc Trestman has historically utilized. So it's highly unlikely either players is cut or traded any time soon.
Yet the third running back spot, and possibly a fourth, still need to be filled. The Bears used Kahlil Bell and Armando Allen in those roles last year. Bell is an average ball carrier who has value on special teams, one of the main criteria of any third- and fourth-string runner on the roster. He was cut by the team last season after refusing to take a pay cut, then re-signed in the final month after Bush was lost to injury. He has played five seasons with the Bears, so it's clear he's reached his ceiling. Chicago can do better.
Allen, on the other hand, is a player with a lot of potential entering his third season. He's a mismatch nightmare as a pass catcher out of the backfield and he's dangerous in the open field. Former coordinator Mike Tice used him sparingly but in Trestman's West Coast system, Allen could have an impact. On top of that, he has shown great effort on special teams. Still, he's an unproven product, meaning the Bears need to bring in some other options this offseason to challenge for those final spots.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few free-agent running backs that could fit those roles in Chicago.
RB Felix Jones
Felix Jones (5-10, 215), Dallas Cowboys, Age: 26
Jones is an explosive player who has shown the ability to be very effective in part-time roles. Over the last three seasons, he has carried the ball 423 times and caught 106 passes. He has also returned 64 kicks during his five-year career, four of those working under Bears special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis. Because of his multi-faceted value on offense, his ability as a kick returner and his history with DeCamillis, he's a very strong candidate for the Bears to pursue.
Danny Woodhead (5-8, 200), New England Patriots, Age: 28
Woodhead is jack-of-all-trades back that can line up anywhere on the field. The Patriots have found creative ways to use Woodhead to create mismatches. His small frame and quickness make him hard to track coming out of the backfield and he can make defenders miss in space. He has also returned 23 kicks in his career. Woodhead's diversity could be very attractive to Trestman, who was referred to as the Bill Belichick of the CFL.
LaRod Stephens-Howling (5-7, 185), Arizona Cardinals, Age: 26
Stephens-Howling is too small to be a full-time ball carrier but he's a solid option as a change-of-pace back with breakaway speed. He also catches balls out of the backfield. In his four-year career, he's returned 163 kicks, so he'd be valuable on special teams as well.
Justin Forsett (5-8, 194), Houston Texans, Age: 27
In the last four years – three with the Seahawks and one in Houston – Forsett has demonstrated the ability carry the load if asked to do so (341 carries during that span) and can also be a weapon as a receiver (100 catches). He's an all-round back that would be very valuable if either Forte or Bush missed time. Early in his career, he returned both punts and kicks, but he hasn't done so since 2010.
Rashad Jennings (6-1, 228), Jacksonville Jaguars, Age: 28
Jennings is a bigger back who would have value in short-yardage situations if Bush were to get hurt. He also has decent hands, catching 49 passes the last three years combined. In addition, he returned 10 kicks last season. Jennings does everything good, just not great. As a quality all-around option, the Bears could do worse than Jennings.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. 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.