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Thursday, February 16, 2012
Franchise focus: Matt Forte

By Kevin Seifert

Another in a daily series on NFC North players who are candidates to receive their team's franchise tag. The window for tagging players opens Monday and closes March 5.

From the moment the Chicago Bears ended contract negotiations last summer with tailback Matt Forte, the endgame seemed clear. The Bears would place their franchise tag on him before his contract expired in March 2012, a move that would enhance the Bears' flexibility at the position but eliminate his options for seeking a payday elsewhere.

Matt Forte
Matt Forte rushed for 997 yards last season before an injury sidelined him for the final four games.
The Bears have since changed general managers, and we should at least consider the possibility that Phil Emery could take a different approach than predecessor Jerry Angelo. But as is the case with the Green Bay Packers and Jermichael Finley, the finances of making Forte a franchise player seem too alluring to consider other options.

As Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com notes, the Bears could lock up Forte for 2012 with a franchise tag worth an affordable $7.7 million in cash and salary-cap commitments. What team wouldn't prefer that option over a lucrative long-term deal for a running back, the most punishing position in the game?

Forte reportedly turned down a deal that included $13 million-$14 million in guarantees over four years. He hasn't said what type of deal he is looking for, but it's worth noting that he earned Pro Bowl honors in 2011 over Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, who signed a seven-year extension last season that guaranteed him $36 million. Meanwhile, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson was guaranteed $30 million as part of a contract extension last summer.

The Bears' only risk in pursuing the franchise route is if it spurred a training-camp holdout. Speaking last month, Forte acknowledged that franchise tags can often serve as a stepping stone to a long-term agreement. But Forte implied he will react poorly if the Bears don't indicate a willingness to negotiate beyond the tag because it will leave him without any guaranteed money beyond the 2012 season.

In that scenario, Forte said: "I wouldn't say holdout, but people probably wouldn't know where I was."

Many around the NFL will be watching Forte's situation closely. There is typically a collective grimace when a team feels compelled to sign veteran running backs to lucrative second contracts, considering how quickly their careers can power down. A sprained ankle, for example, cost Peterson three games last season before he blew out his knee in Week 16. Johnson, finished 2011 with a career-low 1,047 yards and four touchdowns in 16 games. Stay tuned.