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Matt Forte must hope risk leads to reward

Matt Forte has 18 rushing touchdowns in three NFL seasons. (The Star-Ledger/US Presswire)

Matt Forte and the Bears have reportedly decided to call off contract talks until the end of the 2011 season. What that means for Forte's future will depend largely on whether or not he can stay healthy through another 16-game season.

Forte has never missed a game, totaling more than 3,000 yards rushing and nearly 1,500 yards receiving, in his three years with Chicago. But there's one main reason NFL players, and running backs in particular, try to lock up guaranteed contracts before they hit free agency: Injuries.

The 25-year-old Forte has touched the ball 982 times during his three regular seasons -- the odds of him continuing that pace without getting hurt are not good.

His durability, though, is one of the reasons Forte has become such a valuable asset for the Bears. Already this offseason, a plethora of running backs have been handed new contracts, including Frank Gore, DeAngelo Williams and Chris Johnson. Forte doesn't figure to get up into the $30 million guaranteed range Johnson landed in, but he could argue that he deserves to be considered in the same class as Williams ($21 million guaranteed) and Gore ($13.5 million).

Which brings us to the flip side of the cross-your-fingers-and-don't-get-hurt aspect of this story. Being in a contract year can do wonderful things for players' motivation.

Not happy with what you're making now? Go out and earn more. Aside from all Chicago's team goals for 2011, the Bears' inability to lock up Forte long-term before the season should provide their running back all the fuel he needs to stoke his fire.

Assuming that he's not constantly trying to avoid injury, don't be surprised if Forte tops his career highs in rushing (1,238 yards in '09) and receiving (547 yards last year). And he might do so behind a questionable Chicago offensive line.

The pressure is all on Forte right now -- both to stay healthy and produce like a franchise back. But if he does that, the onus falls squarely on the Bears to open the checkbook or risk losing Forte to a holdout or free agency.

To some extent, you have to tip your cap to Forte for not going the holdout route already. That strategy worked for Johnson, who wound up with a contract that makes him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. And if Johnson had the right to holdout, so too did Forte, who will earn a measly $550,000 this season.

Instead, even as extension talks fell apart, Forte committed to being on the field and in the starting lineup.

That's both the gift and the curse for Forte heading into 2011. He will have ample opportunity to prove that he deserves to earn what the upper-echelon NFL backs are earning; he will also have to avoid injury while getting 200-plus touches this season.

Forte finds himself playing NFL running back Russian roulette -- if he can dodge the injury bullet for another entire season, he'll be rewarded handsomely. But he's also taking a major risk.

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