We spent a good part of last week discussing the careers of the NFC North's top two tailbacks. We projected what the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson must do to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and we debated the merits of Matt Forte's cross-platform talents during three years with the Chicago Bears.
Those attributes will come into specific focus in the coming weeks and months. Both Peterson and Forte will report to training camp in the final year of their contracts, leaving the Vikings and Bears in the tenuous position of placing a value on running backs seeking lucrative second deals.
We discussed the issue relative to Peterson last year, and so I won't rehash all of the gory details. But suffice it to say, NFL teams are extraordinarily reluctant to reward running backs who have already absorbed three or four years of pounding, as Forte and Peterson have, respectively. Former Packers contract negotiator Andrew Brandt, now an analyst for ESPN and the National Football Post, has referred to the "graveyard" filled with prominent running backs whose careers have broken down after signing a contract extension, from Shaun Alexander to Larry Johnson.
Still, for different reasons, it's hard to imagine either team moving forward over the next few years without their top runner. We'll start with Forte, whose situation is a bit more straightforward than Peterson's.
The Bears have managed to cut back Forte's workload significantly since he took a whopping 316 carries as a rookie in 2008, lowering it to 258 carries in 2009 and 237 last year. As a second-round draft pick, Forte's rookie contract made him by nature one of the best bargains in the NFL over that time. He is scheduled to earn $555,000 this year on a four-year deal that originally included $1.533 million guaranteed.
Forte hasn't missed a start in three years and isn't looking to break the bank. He recently told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune that he is hoping the team throws him a bone and nothing more. The Bears have some $33 million in salary-cap space available, and it is entirely reasonable to predict Forte will get an extension by the end of the year.
In an important way, however, Forte's career path provides the perfect argument for diverting cash and salary-cap space to another position. You remember the situation when the Bears drafted Forte in 2008, don't you? The Bears had bid farewell to 2006 starter Thomas Jones, who at the time was 28, and then waived Cedric Benson prior to training camp.
Forte was well-regarded before and after the draft, but the Bears were able to plug him in as an immediate starter and didn't miss a beat. Was that because Forte was special? Or is it reasonable to think the Bears could repeat that scenario? Should the Bears consider allowing Forte to play out his final season, presumably exhausting his best years as an NFL player, and then draft a younger replacement in 2012?
Take a look at the two charts, the first of which accompanied last year's post on this topic. In 2009, eight of the NFL's top 10 leading rushers were 27 years old or younger. Last season, the dynamic was even more pronounced: All 10 were 28 years old or younger, and all but two were playing on their original contracts.
Forte will turn 26 in December. Peterson, meanwhile, just turned 26 and already has nearly 1,300 carries logged on his body when you add playoff games to his official statistics. Performance bonuses have lifted his 2011 salary to a whopping $10.72 million for 2011, a figure that more than adequately pays him for elite services this season.
In many ways, the smart business approach would be to let Peterson play out the year at his eight-figure salary and then evaluate his health and long-term prognosis after the season. Moving forward, the franchise tag is always an option for a team that either doesn't want to commit long-term or can't reach an agreement with the player.
On the other hand, Peterson counts more than $12 million against the Vikings' salary cap at the moment, and an extension would help bring down that figure. New coach Leslie Frazier is already on record saying he wants to build his offense around Peterson. That amounts to a verbal vote of confidence, if not financial.
One way or the other, the Vikings and Bears will have to address these issues. My guess is that both Peterson and Forte will be back with their respective teams in 2012, be it through long-term extensions or franchise tags.
But it's not a simple decision for either team, and it's complicated by the long-established trend of high-impact running backs fading in their late 20's. Stay tuned.
Related: In the video below, Peterson spends a day as editor/photo subject of ESPN The Magazine. Peterson suggests a story on Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield and complains about people being too quick to judge others.