Overview: Matt Forte in 2013 proved he was the perfect back for Marc Trestman’s offense, accounting for nearly one-third of the team’s 6,109 total yards and carrying the ball at least 20 times in all eight of its victories in his best season to date. Trestman’s QB-friendly system and a pair of supersized receivers grabbed many of the headlines on offense, but Forte was the unit’s tone setter and arguably most valuable player.
The Bears figure to have at least one new face alongside Forte in the running back room, fourth-rounder Ka’Deem Carey, the first back drafted by Chicago since Forte, in 2008. Along with incumbent Michael Ford, three players – journeyman Shaun Draughn and a pair of undrafted rookies, Jordan Lynch and Senorise Perry – will battle for one additional backfield vacancy.
After signing a two-year deal in December, fullback Tony Fiammetta is likely in the club's 2014 plans. He was used sparingly in his first season - roughly 20 percent of the team's snaps - but Fiammetta is a tough blocker who can also function as an occasional security valve as a receiver. Unlike last summer when Harvey Unga was in camp, Fiammetta is the only fullback — though we can never truly rule out Unga's return to Bourbonnais.
Position Battle: The Bears would love a back to prove he’s capable of lightening the load of Forte, who has racked up a lot of mileage in his first six seasons. That was the plan with Michael Bush last year, but the veteran’s play fell off precipitously in his second season in Chicago. The most important criteria the Bears will be evaluating in Bourbonnais is dependability in the passing game. It’s an area that has become nearly impossible to gauge in the offseason due to a lack of hitting, forcing coaches to evaluate technique and fundamentals in May and June before trying to measure players’ willingness and physicality as blockers in July and August.
Outside of Forte, only Draughn has been asked to block and catch at this level. Despite Bush’s struggles, Ford couldn’t get on the field, largely because he couldn’t be counted on in those areas. The good news for all of the candidates in the backup battle is that the Bears aren’t afraid to throw a young guy whom they trust into the fire. The key is developing that trust.
Carey impressed this offseason with his ability to get north and south quickly. Ford, in addition to holding a slight advantage due to his knowledge of the offense, is also in the mix to handle return responsibilities. Lynch looked natural catching on the move, but he has never had the task of blocking blitzing linebackers before, something all the others have at some point during their football lives. Perry has rare speed and suddenness, but he struggled a bit with his hands during OTAs and minicamp.
Fiammetta's battle to make the roster could become interesting if the Bears want to keep extra tight ends or offensive tackles that could play his blocking role.
Contract Situations (information via Spotrac): The Bears are in an enviable situation salary cap-wise in the backfield at a position that has become increasingly devalued. Forte has a base salary of just under $6 million this year, a terrific value for one of the NFL’s few do-everything tailbacks. Entering the third year of a four-year, $30 million deal, Forte could be focused on another strong showing perhaps leading to a contract extension, though his age – 29 in December – and Carey’s presence wouldn’t seem to work in his favor.
Carey, Draughn and Ford combined are slated to earn less than $1.5 million in 2014; Lynch and Perry are guaranteed nothing moving forward unless they earn a spot on the 53-man roster or practice squad.
Keep an eye on: Perry. The 6-0, 206-pound undrafted rookie out of Louisville understandably flew under the radar due to higher-profile rookies like Carey and Lynch, but he possesses a unique trait in this competition: speed and explosion. Perry’s game needs refining, however. In addition to struggling at times catching balls, he must improve as a route runner, and his blocking abilities are an unknown heading to camp. But the Bears showed last offseason, when Ford earned a spot on the 53-man roster, that undrafted free agents can stick at this position.