Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears is one the top five running backs currently in the National Football League. The contract numbers Forte is reportedly asking for from the Bears seem reasonable, if he is not asking to be paid among the highest paid running backs in the NFL.
As the July 16th deadline to sign a long term deal draws near, if Forte and the Bears cannot come to an agreement and Forte doesn't sign his tender, he could choose from the following options.
1. Sign a one-year contract after July 16th with a clause
If the Chicago Bears do not get a long term deal done with Matt Forte before July 16th, then Forte could ask for a...let's call it the "Lance Briggs Clause." After July 16th at 3pm Chicago time, Forte can only sign a one year contract with the Bears. However, he could ask for the Bears to do what they did for Lance Briggs in 2007. Lance Briggs agreed to sign a one year deal with a clause attached to it saying that the Bears could not franchise tag him the following year. Therefore, Forte could ask for the same deal after July 16th 3pm Chicago time.
This scenario seems like the best way for Forte and the Bears to get what they want. The Bears can get Forte to camp to catch up in the new offense, he will play out the whole season, and the organization can either sign him to a new deal at the end of the 2012 season or let him go. Forte will have more options this way and more numbers to show other teams why they should pay for him. The only dangerous part about this scenario is that Forte would hit free agency if he doesn't like the Bears best "strong" offer and they would get nothing in return. If the Bears do not give him this option then it could lead into scenario three.
2. Hold out until after the trade deadline
This move is very similar to former San Diego Charger Vincent Jackson's situation awhile back. Matt Forte could hold out, in the hopes of being traded, until after week 8, the proposed 2013 trade deadline has passed. If the Bears don't trade him by then, Forte could sign his franchise tag tender before week 9 and collect the remaining $4,098,708 million dollars left on his contract. The Tuesday following week 10 is the hold out deadline, afterwhich he cannot play during the rest of the 2012 season.
Forte could be thinking really hard about going this route. It might be his quickest path to free agency with the least physical risk involved, while still cashing in. If Forte returns by week 9 of the regular season, he would collect more than half of his game checks. He would earn nearly double the money he earned from his rookie contract, in only about half a season.
Forte's ticket to free agency freedom would then most likely come if the Bears choose not to tag him in 2013 at a 120% markup of $9.3M. After having already proven that he would hold out during the regular season, I find it highly unlikely that the Bears would be willing to repeat that process by franchise tagging him again.
If the Bears don't offer Forte the aforementioned Lance Briggs Clause", this could be Matt Forte's strongest play to get to free agency as quickly as possible.
3. Hold out the entire season
Forte chooses not risk his career again for a new contract, so he holds out the whole regular season. If he did, a clause would kick in where the Bears only franchise tag option would be the non-exclusive tag. Forte would be free to negotiate and sign a deal with any team, but that team would, in this special case, have to give up a first and a third round draft pick versus two first round picks in the normal non-exclusive tag. The Bears could also use the transition tag on Forte, where they could "match" another team's offer. However, they would risk getting nothing in return if they refused to "match". The Bears would likely use the non-exclusive franchise tag on Forte, of the two.
In my humble opinion, this is the least likely scenario that Forte would choose. Though, he would be free to sign a deal, if a team were willing to part with the two picks, he would otherwise be giving financial leverage back to the hands of the Chicago Bears. Assuming the Bears use the non-exclusive franchise tag on Forte in 2013, the formula for his tag value would be either 120% of his 2011 yearly salary or the 2013 franchise tag value for running backs, whichever is greater. If Forte played at all in 2012, the 120% would be $9.3M for 2013, which would be greater than the expected 2013 tag value for running backs. Aside from the financial leverage lost, Forte would have to hope a team was willing to give up a first and a third round pick in order for him to earn his long term deal.
Without a long term deal, my feeling is that Matt Forte would prefer a one year contract w/a no re-tag clause, but it might take holding out until the trade deadline to get it. Signing the franchise tag without the clause before holding out doesn't decrease the likelihood of the Bears using the tag on Forte again in 2013. The most likey reason that the Bears would cave in to Forte's "exit" request would be if Michael Bush goes down for a significant amount of games. If it's not offered otherwise, and Forte starts missing regular season games, you'd have to think that the Bears would cut their losses and try trading him before the deadline.
Whatever happens, it all begins, and could end, by 3pm on July 16th. If the Chicago Bears and Matt Forte cannot agree on a new contract by then, the ball will be in Forte's court and he will have options, my friends.