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Bears dangerously thin behind Forte

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte (22), left, and Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall (15) sit in the green room during the NFL Pro Bowl Draft, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, Kapolei, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia) (Marco Garcia)

Even after general manager Phil Emery’s impressive offseason overhaul, the Bears’ defense still has holes. Pick any position outside of defensive end and it’s likely to be targeted in next month’s draft.

The Bears’ offense, on the other hand, will return all 11 starters, and could be even more potent than it was a season ago, what with Jay Cutler healthy and an offensive line with a full year of playing together under its belt.

Of course, that’s largely dependent on the health of Matt Forte. Coming off a career year and at the height of his diverse skills, Forte, 28, is the least expendable member of the offense outside of Cutler. He’s been remarkably durable in his six-year career despite a lot of heavy lifting – he’s averaged over 315 touches per season – but it’s Emery’s job to have the best possible contingency plan in place.

Clearly, that wasn’t plodding Michael Bush, who was released last month after his perceived strength – picking up tough yards – was perhaps the Bears' biggest weakness on offense. That leaves 2013 undrafted rookie Michael Ford as the only current option behind Forte. The 5-foot-10, 216-pound Ford provided glimpses of being a formidable return man, but the next regular-season carry he gets will be his first.

Emery has made it clear that his No. 2 requirement for a running back, beyond being able to run the ball, is to be solid in pass protection and blitz pickup. Ford’s never even tried blocking in an NFL game.

Thus, Ford can expect competition for the No. 2 spot. It’s likely the Bears will be eyeing running backs in next month’s draft. And though Emery stated Monday that the Bears’ free-agent activity has “slowed down a tad,” they’ll continue investigating every opportunity to improve the roster.

Chris Johnson will be released soon by the Titans, but don’t expect the Bears to kick the tires. While CJ would actually be a good scheme fit for Marc Trestman’s zone rushing offense, his me-first attitude wouldn’t work in Chicago. Forte’s a bell cow back. Johnson is going somewhere where he’s at least offered a chance to be the guy.

Of the current unrestricted free agent running backs, the biggest names are Willis McGahee, Ronnie Brown and Andre Brown. McGahee and Ronnie Brown are ancient by running back standards, and Andre Brown is a powerful runner who has been unable to stay on the field. He’d be a solid option, but his lack of durability makes it hard to count on him.

Former first-round pick Felix Jones is still just 26, but after acquiring him in a trade from the Cowboys last summer, the Steelers made no effort to re-sign him. Instead, they brought in LeGarrette Blount. Jones wouldn’t offer a clear upgrade over Ford, who has a similar body type and running style.

Deji Karim and Darius Reynaud have had success as return men, but like Ford, they have very little experience in the backfield. Justin Forsett, 28, is coming off a one-and-done season in Jacksonville that was marred by injuries. When healthy, Forsett’s experience and versatility make him intriguing, but he’s undersized and is coming off a fractured foot.

Brian Leonard, Bernard Scott, LaRod Stephens-Howling and former Bear Kahlil Bell help round out the list of free agents. Scott and Leonard are on the wrong side of 30. Bell’s unlikely to get a third shot with the Bears. Similar to Forsett, Stephens-Howling is a versatile player who’s coming off a season-ending injury – usually the biggest reason why talented players are still available at this juncture of free agency.

If Emery and Marc Trestman are seeking a backup with more experience than Ford, they have options but it seems most likely they’ll use the draft to create competition for Ford. It’s a deep class, but running back is one of the thinner positions. The options left in free agency aren’t a whole lot more enticing.

• Arthur Arkush covers the Bears for Chicago Football. He can be reached at aarkush@chicagofootball.com or on Twitter @ArthurArkush.

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