Matt Forte still does not have the long-term contract he is seeking, but the Bears have ensured that the Pro Bowl running back will return in 2012.
In a move that was no surprise, the club placed the franchise tag on Forte on Friday, tendering him a one-year offer that will pay him $7.7 million for this season -- a raise of $7.1 million over what he made in 2011.
"Matt is an important part of our football team and we chose to utilize the franchise tag to ensure he remains a Bear," Bears general manager Phil Emery said. "We believe in Matt as a player and a person. Our intention is to continue to work to find common ground and keep Matt as a member of the Chicago Bears in 2012 and beyond."
The franchise tag does not prevent the Bears and Forte and his agent, Adisa Bakari, from continuing to work on a multiyear deal. A long-term contract can be signed up until July 15. After that point, Forte will have to play under the franchise tag for the 2012 season.
The Bears have held the leverage with Forte since negotiations opened last summer, and they finally played it when they could by tagging Forte. The Bears now can use the franchise number -- $7.7 million -- to work off of as they talk about guaranteed money in a long-term deal.
Forte may point to the blockbuster five-year, $43 million contract Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams received last summer. The deal included $21 million guaranteed. Forte can make a strong case he compares favorably, but the difference is Williams held leverage because he was an unrestricted free agent. Given the shelf life of running backs, that is a lot of money for a running back.
The Bears began working on a new contract for Forte during training camp last summer, and Bakari visited training camp to meet with team president Ted Phillips, among others. Former general manager Jerry Angelo suspended talks before the season started so that it would not be a distraction during the season. But the move was made with a hope that the sides would find common ground before the season was over. That never happened, and Angelo was removed from the picture when he was fired Jan. 3.
Forte's representatives met with the Bears during the scouting combine last month in Indianapolis. They didn't close the gap enough to work out a bigger deal that would guarantee Forte more money -- maybe double the $7.7 million. It remains a top priority for Emery.
Phillips has stated multiple times that the team hopes to sign Forte and said the team ranked in the bottom five among NFL teams in player salaries in 2011 because it set aside a good chunk of money to pay Forte last season. Now, the Bears have roughly $25 million in salary-cap room, a figure that will be reduced by $7.7 million if and when Forte signs his contract offer.
If Forte signs the offer, the deal becomes fully guaranteed for this season, but the sides can do a bigger deal before July 16. Until Forte signs the contract, he cannot participate in the offseason program, minicamp or OTAs. The team cannot fine him for missing a mandatory event such as minicamp if he is not under contract.
Forte has been a model of durability since being drafted in the second round out of Tulane in 2008. He started 60 consecutive games before a mild MCL sprain in his right knee knocked him out for the final four games of the 2011 season. He recovered in time to play in the Pro Bowl.
Forte is just the second Bears player to receive the franchise tag in the last decade. Linebacker Lance Briggs played under the franchise tag in 2007.
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