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Bears' farewell to Matt Forte not a surprise

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Bears' farewell to Matt Forte not a surprise

It was a message and you knew it at the time.

In Matt Forte’s otherwise largely empty locker amid the end-of-season cleanout by players of their lockers, a T-shirt with the word “Workhorse” rested on a hanger. It was what Forte wanted his legacy to be as well as a statement for whatever the future held.

“You see how tattered and beat up and stuff [it is],” Forte said, then smiled. “It’s not like me. I’m still good. I just wanted to leave it in there because all my hard work, blood, sweat, tears is in this shirt, too. I wanted to kind of just leave it in my locker along with some stuff.”

If there was an air of finality to it all, Forte understood that. When he had approached the Bears with an offer to restructure the final year in his four-year contract, the Bears hadn’t show any real interest in reworking the deal and give him what would have been an extension on the contract.

The lack of interest on the part of the Bears became “official” on Friday when Forte confirmed via his Instagram account that the Bears would not be attempting to re-sign the franchise’s No. 2 all-time running back now or when free agency formally opens next month.

"Despite my wishes, my days as a member of the Chicago Bears have sadly come to an end," Forte posted. "I was informed earlier this week from the GM that they will not be attempting to re-sign me in free agency. I will remain forever grateful for my time spent in Chicago and being able to play for an organization with such a rich history. My only regret is not being able to win a Lombardi trophy for the best fans in all of sports. I'm excited about the next chapter of my NFL career. But, Chicago will always be home. God Bless and Bear Down!"

[MORE BEARS: End of an era - Bears inform Matt Forte they won't re-sign him]

Forte’s departure places the football and running game squarely in the hands of Jeremy Langford, who had breakout games filling in while Forte missed three games with a knee injury, and Ka’Deem Carey, the Bears’ fourth-round picks in the past two drafts.

The step away from Forte was confirmed via statement from GM Ryan Pace.

“We recently met with Matt to inform him we will not extend a contract offer for the 2016 season. These decisions are never easy, especially given what Matt has meant to our team and community. We have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Matt is one of the all-time great Bears and did an excellent job for us on and off the field last season. He was a tremendous teammate. We thank him for his professionalism and wish him the very best as he continues his career.”

The decision on Forte is one of several major personnel moves coming in the next couple of months, including several affecting what has been the starting offensive lineup the past few seasons.

The Bears are expected to use their franchise tag to buy time for working out a long-term contract with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. The first day for applying the tag is Tuesday, Feb. 16, for a period running through Tuesday, Mar. 1. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is not expected back with the Bears after losing his starting job during the season to Charles Leno Jr. Tight end Martellus Bennett is under contract through the 2016 season but his situation is fuzzy after a holdout last offseason and Bennett missing five games late in the season with a rib injury.

Money matters

In 2012, after Phil Emery replaced Jerry Angelo as general manager, Forte signed a four-year contract worth $30.4 million, including $17.1 million guaranteed. That deal paid Forte $8 million last season, a figure that was not going to be approached by the Bears in any scenario with Forte at age 30.

What the Forte exit does is leave the Bears with one of the lowest cap allotments in the NFL at running back, basically one-sixth of what Forte cost the Bears in 2014. Both Carey and Langford were fourth-round draft picks. Carey has a $710,000 cap hit for 2016, $600,000 in base salary, and Langford will cost the Bears $525,000 in base salary and $660,906 in total cap charge.

[MORE BEARS: Bears pay tribute to 'legend' that is Matt Forte]

The Bears hold a full deck of nine selections in this year’s NFL draft, including sixth-round picks acquired in the trades of Jared Allen and Jon Bostic. For what it is worth, the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos won Super Bowls in the 90's with outstanding run games built on Dorsey Levens and Terrell Davis, respectively, both sixth-round picks for their teams.

Superior career

Forte was an immediate starter after his selection in the second round of the 2008 draft, the round after the Bears chose Vanderbilt tackle Chris Williams. He started the first 60 games of his career before suffering a knee injury in 2011 and missing the final four games in the first of his two Pro Bowl seasons.

He is one of 12 players in NFL history with 8,000 career rushing yards and 4,000 career receiving yards and is one of five players in NFL history to have 1,200-plus yards from scrimmage in each of his first eight seasons, joining Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson and Ricky Watters.

In eight seasons with the Bears, Forte had 12,718 yards from scrimmage, rushing for 8,602 yards and adding 4,116 via pass receptions, marked by an NFL-record 102 catches in 2014. Forte ranks second in franchise history in yards from scrimmage, rushing yards, receptions (487), 100-yard rushing games (24), and games with 150 yards or more from scrimmage (25), trailing only Walter Payton in all five categories. With 45 rushing touchdowns and 19 receiving scores, his 64 total touchdowns are third in franchise history behind Payton and Neal Anderson. He is also sixth in franchise receiving yards.

[SHOP: Buy a Matt Forte jersey]

Forte’s eight seasons with 1,200 yards are second only to Payton’s 10. No other Bear has more than three. Forte (106.0 yards per game) and Payton (111.9 ypg) are the only two players in franchise history to average over 100 yards from scrimmage per game in the Bears careers.

A two-time Pro Bowl selection (2011, 2013), Forte leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage and games with 150 or more yards from scrimmage since entering the league in 2008. He is also fourth in rushing yards while ranking first among running backs in receptions and receiving yards and is third among running backs in receiving touchdowns during that time.

In 2014, he broke the NFL single-season mark for receptions by a running back with 102 and set the franchise single-season running back record for receiving yards (808) that year. A team-captain in 2015, Forte is a two-time recipient of the team’s Brian Piccolo Award (2008 and 2014), the team’s 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, and was one of eight NFL finalists for the 2015 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl. 

2017 Bears position grades: Wide receivers

2017 Bears position grades: Wide receivers

2017 grade: D-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Markus Wheaton (contract), Dontrelle Inman (free agent), Kendall Wright (free agent), Josh Bellamy (free agent), Kevin White (fifth-year option)

Possible free agent targets: All of them? (But more specifically Jarvis Landry, Mike Wallace, Paul Richardson, Marqise Lee, Ryan Grant, Eric Decker, Albert Wilson, Donte Moncrief, Jaron Brown, Taylor Garbriel, Terrelle Pryor, John Brown, Allen Robinson)

The Bears cannot go into 2018 with a wide receiver core as weak as the one with which Mitchell Trubisky had to work in 2017. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to go out and sign Jarvis Landry for huge money and then draft, say, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, but adding multiple reliable wide receivers is a massive need for the offseason. A blend of free agents and draft picks seems like the most likely route.

Before we look at this year’s free agent class, a word on Cameron Meredith, who said this on locker cleanout day Jan. 1: “Training camp for sure I’ll be back. Right now it’s staying on pace so that I can do that. Yes, full recovery.”

The Bears shouldn’t count on Meredith to improve off his 66-catch, 888-yard 2016 season by virtue of him coming back from a torn ACL suffered last August. But it’s also not like any production from Meredith will be a bonus; if he’s even close to the player he was two years ago, he’ll be a significant part of the Bears’ offense.

So if the Bears are counting on Meredith to play in 2018, do they absolutely need to go out and splurge for the best receiver on the market in Jarvis Landry? Not necessarily. Landry reportedly wants Davante Adams money (four years, $58 million, with $32 million guaranteed) and might get more than that if a bidding war develops on the open market.

Would Landry be worth it? He followed consecutive 1,100-yard seasons in 2015 and 2016 with a league-leading 112 receptions in 2017, and won’t turn 26 until next November, so yeah, he very well could be. The Bears should have enough cap space to chase Landry, too.

But for a few reasons, Ryan Pace has either never landed nor pursued the priciest free agents in his three cycles as general manager. He splashed $38.75 million for Pernell McPhee in 2015; that was the 10th-largest free agent contract signed that year and has the 13th-highest amount of guaranteed money, per Spotrac. Danny Trevathan got $28 million in 2016 (22nd among free agents), and Mike Glennon’s ill-fated $45 million contract ranked 11th last year (with significantly less guaranteed money).

The other part of Pace’s free agency strategy hasn’t been under his control: The Bears just haven’t been an enticing destination lately. Cornerback A.J. Bouye -- 2017’s highest-paid free agent -- turned down more money from the Bears to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars, for example.

The Bears hope that’s changing, with a promising franchise quarterback, a young and affable head coach and a major renovation to Halas Hall. For all the losing, and for all the gripes outside Lake Forest about John Fox, the Bears did have a good culture in their locker room. Selling the future of this franchise should be a lot easier in 2018 than it was in 2017.

Will that all add up to the Bears signing Landry to a huge contract? Not necessarily. The Bears could make a strong pitch and sizable offer, but he could be lured by another team that’s had more recent success (like the Oakland Raiders). Or Pace could continue to look for bargains in free agency, which hasn’t particularly worked out for him in the past, but then take a receiver with the Bears’ first-round pick.

But perhaps Pace will see his long-term vision coming together, and will see a big-ticket free agent like Landry being the guy who puts the Bears over the hump from winning to losing. He could be the franchise’s Jon Lester, or if you’re a hopeful White Sox fan, Manny Machado.

But here’s a counter to the argument for signing Landry: Kansas City’s offense last year didn’t have a big-time outside target. Tyreek Hill’s versatility and explosive playmaking ability made him the Chiefs’ best wide receiver, but he was able to line up at almost any position on the field. Albert Wilson (who’s a free agent) had the second-most targets of among Chiefs receivers with 62; tight end Travis Kelce was targeted a team-high 122 times.

The Bears don’t have a Hill or a Kelce on their roster. Tarik Cohen and Adam Shaheen could be the “light” versions of both, which may necessitate a need for better “traditional” wide receivers. That doesn’t necessarily mean Landry, to be fair.

Mike Wallace is 31 but showed he still has something in the tank, missing only one game the last two years while racking up 1,765 yards and eight touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens. Paul Richardson had a breakout 2017 with the Seattle Seahawks, catching 44 passes for 703 yards with six touchdowns as an effective deep threat. Marqise Lee had 119 catches for 1,553 yards in the vertically-challenged Jaguars offense the last two years. Ryan Grant has never missed a game in his four-year career and is coming off a career best 45-catch, 573-yard season with Washington. The aforementioned Wilson caught 42 passes for 554 yards with the Chiefs last year, both career highs.

Perhaps no free agent receivers have as much to prove than Terrelle Pryor and Donte Moncrief. Pryor, like Alshon Jeffery, found the free agent market weak in 2017 and took a one-year prove-it deal, but instead turning it into an extension and Super Bowl ring, he bombed with only 20 catches for 240 yards with Washington. It’d be a risk, but if he can get the stink of 2017 off him and flash the talent that got him 77 receptions and over 1,000 yards with the Cleveland Browns in 2016, he’d be worth it.

Moncrief is another interesting name out there. He was targeted over 100 times in 2015 and caught 64 passes for 733 yards and six touchdowns as the big-bodied complement to T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis, but struggled to stay healthy the last two years, only playing 21 games and totaling 56 receptions for 698 yards.

One other guy to highlight: Allen Robinson. The Jaguars probably won’t let him get away, but even if they do, would the Bears really want to sign him and then have three wide receivers coming off season-ending injuries (Meredith and Kevin White being the other two; Robinson tore his ACL in Week 1 last year). The Rams’ Sammy Watkins is also an impending free agent, but it’d be a huge surprise if Los Angeles let him hit the open market, so he’s not worth considering for the Bears right now.

We’ll see what direction Pace takes next month with free agency. But expect the Bears to return no more than one receiver from their Week 2 lineup -- Kendall Wright (59 receptions, 614 yards) is probably the only guy who could be back, if the two parties want to re-unite. Wright, as it stands for my grade, was the only guy keeping this unit from an “F,” as in a total failure.

Markus Wheaton, who became only one of nine players since 1992 to be targeted at least 15 times and catch fewer than 20 percent of those targets (he caught two passes), is likely to be cut. It’s unlikely Josh Bellamy or Dontrelle Inman will be re-signed (slight chance for Inman, but he disappeared in December). And the Bears probably will decline Kevin White’s fifth-year option, making 2018 a prove-it year for the former first-round pick.