Looking a little deeper at the contract situations of Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett...
The situations are hugely significant, given that the two players represented 16 of the Bears’ 38 touchdowns and 53 percent of the team’s yardage on offense in 2014. They also involve not only the players, but also the directions anticipated in the 2015 Bears offense.
By way of perspective, first:
Understand that the matter of contracts are anything but simple, much more complicated than just declaring, “you’ve got a contract, you have to honor it.” The problem with that, as Brian Urlacher once correctly noted, when teams want (read: “demand”) a player to take a pay cut, the public rarely applies that dictum to teams, only when a player is demanding a pay raise. That’s just the nature of the NFL compensation structure.
For whatever reasons, the knee-jerk attitude is that when someone under-performs their pay grade, they can take a hit, but when someone out-performs their contract, an outcry for more money is rare.
Bennett vs. Julius Thomas
So Bennett can be criticized, albeit not necessarily fairly, for not appearing to honor his contract. “But fair” is a fluid concept where NFL contracts are concerned. Bennett is due a little more than $9 million over the next two seasons; by comparison, Julius Thomas, who caught a combined 108 passes the last two years, vs. Bennett’s 155, will average $9.2 million per year over the next four seasons, roughly twice what Bennett is getting despite production far short of Thomas’.
But here’s a problem.
A more interesting angle on the Bennett and Forte situations is looking at the futures rather than strictly the pasts. Because, ultimately, value is determined by what Bennett and Forte will be worth in the 2015 offense, not only what they were in seasons past.
Every expectation is that the Chicago offense under head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase will swing dramatically back toward the balance that left when Marc Trestman arrived. Bennett’s 155 receptions came in an offense out of balance (nearly 63 percent pass) compared to what Fox and Gase have run previously.
Meaning: Bennett is unlikely to be seeing the 225 “targets” over the next two years that he saw in the last two. By comparison, Thomas saw a combined 149 for 2013-14 with Fox in Denver. Rob Gronkowski averaged 9.0 targets per game over the past two seasons; Bennett averaged 7.0 even with the skewed offense. Bennett's rate of usage is likely to dip a bit.
And the Bears did not use the No. 7 overall pick of this year’s draft on a wide receiver with the intention of increasing use of the tight end.
As mentioned previously, one expectation is that the Bears will add a year to Forte’s contract, which expires after 2015, giving him the always-coveted cash-in-hand while at the same time lowering their cap hit.
Two considerations here, one future, one past:
While Bennett’s use might be expected to decline a bit for 2015, Forte’s might not. The return to better balance means more work for running backs. All of the carries and targets aren’t planned to be Forte’s; the Bears used a fourth-round pick for running back Jeremy Langford for more than special teams.
But Forte is the lead dog in the Bears’ backfield and the fact that he turns 30 in December projects as a non-serious issue. Few Bears have put as much planning and effort into their own offseason programs as Forte has, reminiscent of Walter Payton and his “hill.”
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Coincidentally perhaps, Forte stands second to only Payton in nearly all significant running-back franchise numbers. And Payton, with more than 300 carries in all 10 of his final non-strike seasons, put up 2,000-yard combined yardage seasons at ages 30 and 31.
The Bears also have a quiet tradition of taking care of distinguished veterans with late-career contract tweaks. Urlacher got one; so did Lance Briggs; so did Roberto Garza.
How GM Ryan Pace and new contract chief Joey Laine go forward with veterans will not be lost in the locker room, either.