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Monday, August 1, 2011
Bears to Forte: It's complicated

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Right now, it's all semantics. And if you're Matt Forte, semantics don't pay the mortgage.

Forte says Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo called his potential contract extension a "priority." Angelo used the word "intent." Forte has to hope "protracted" won't work its way into the lexicon.

Forte's agent, Adisa Bakari, was on campus at the Bears' training camp Monday, which Forte took as a positive. And let's hope it is. Though it may still be a bit premature after three seasons to declare Forte a perennial elite back, it is certainly worth avoiding free agency if you're the Bears.

Matt Forte
Matt Forte is one of the best bargains in the NFL.

Angelo has not been shy about locking up his own players with generous extensions, some that would come back to haunt him, like the five-year, $20 million extension he gave the troubled Bryan Robinson in 2001; the five-year, $28 million extension to Nathan Vasher, complete with $14 million in guarantees; and the four-year, $40 million extension to Tommie Harris in '08. Ouch.

But Angelo would also give extensions to Patrick Mannelly and Matt Toeaina in 2010; to Jay Cutler and Israel Idonije in '09; and before that to Lance Briggs, Robbie Gould, Devin Hester, Brian Urlacher and Olin Kreutz.

Add Forte, who is making a $550,000 base salary in the final year of his rookie contract, to that list of, uh, priorities.

That's the thing that should worry Bears fans. Already, the two sides seem to be subtly needling the other, not a great precursor to a happy ending.

After Forte told reporters that he was confident something would be worked out after Angelo gave him his word he was a priority signing -- meaning in the next few weeks -- Angelo came out and seemed to make a special point of saying that Forte should not get too carried away.

"[Forte's agent] called me in the summer, and I wouldn't give him anything definitive," Angelo said. "I had my thoughts, but I'm very measured when I talk about players' contracts, particularly extensions. We have a pretty good track record of doing it. I told him that I can't give you any timetable. I said that's not possible, so I'm not going to tell you that. He didn't like hearing it. But that's the way things go sometimes."

Angelo went on to say he was "motivated" to do something.

"The timetable is yet to be determined," Angelo said. "Just be patient. Take care of your job as you already have and continue to do and then we're going to do our part. But again it's a negotiation. Got to find that common ground. That part of it will be a challenge."

And Forte should be patient. But watching the Kreutz negotiation play out would not instill a great deal of confidence in any Bears player.

"It won't drag on," Forte told ESPNChicago.com on Monday. "He told me I'm a priority and when he said it was his intent, that's a strong word. That's what he said. So I don't believe it will drag on."

Forte It won't drag on. [Angelo] told me I'm a priority and when he said it was his intent, that's a strong word. That's what he said. So I don't believe it will drag on.

-- Matt Forte on his contract negotiations

Angelo made a point of saying that because Forte is under contract, he can't look at the market set by other unrestricted free agents, which sounds like trouble if you're looking for a quick resolution or any resolution before Forte enters free agency.

It also sounds like making a really simple situation really confusing, which Angelo can excel at.

If the Bears do not make an offer that Forte and his agent deem as fair compared to other players with his numbers, they will go to free agency. Thus Angelo will be forced to confront the issue of fair market value and might not like what he sees.

"It depends on the person you're talking about," Forte said. "If you're talking about somebody who's just looking for a contract extension, that's different. I'm not a restricted free agent yet. That's right. But it's all about production. [Mine] speaks for itself. You don't have to try and match numbers and all that stuff. Just look at what type of player you're talking about."

"I think he can do everything," offensive lineman Roberto Garza said of Forte, who ranks fourth among active running backs over the past three years in yards from scrimmage. "And the big runs he had last year was a preview of things to come."

Like the Chester Taylor signing last year, the acquisition of Marion Barber over the weekend, regardless of the fact that Barber's career is on the decline, gives the not-so-subtle jab to Forte that he may not be as indispensable as he might think. The Bears also believe Taylor pushed Forte last year after a sub-par, injury-riddled sophomore season -- and it might be true.

Forte is already sensitive about his reputation on the goal line -- a responsibility that could well be shifted to Barber -- and came to camp noticeably bulked up.

"You can always use added muscle," Forte said. "That's what the offseason is for, to get bigger, stronger and faster. I've been criticized for goal-line carries, but sometimes on the goal line there's nothing there and you're trying to get one yard. I don't really care what people say, I'm just as good a goal-line back as a regular back."

Either way, all of the early posturing by Angelo smacks of him wanting to see for sure what he has in Forte for a few games or more before signing him.

There is little debate that the position of running back has been slowly devalued in the NFL, now ranking behind left tackles, defensive ends, quarterbacks and home-run receivers. Look no further than Green Bay, which won the Super Bowl essentially without a running back to see it.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Bears will break camp with Forte, Barber and Kahlil Bell, who unlike Taylor can play special teams. The Bears could cut Taylor, trade him or -- how about this for a scenario -- trade Forte for, say, a marquee corner or defensive end?

The only thing to do if you're a Bears fan is to hold your breath.

It should feel familiar by now.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.