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Bears running back Matt Forte. (AP)

Should Bears stick with Matt Forte or draft a running back?

SHARE Should Bears stick with Matt Forte or draft a running back?
SHARE Should Bears stick with Matt Forte or draft a running back?

Bears coach John Fox wants to feature a wave of running backs and hopes that running back Matt Forte provides the biggest splash.

But for how long?

The selection of a running back in the draft next week remains a distinct possibility, but it’s how early that pick is made that will be most telling when it comes to Forte’s future.

Forte wants an extension, but his 30th birthday in December, this year’s solid draft class and the regime change at Halas Hall don’t exactly support his cause.

General manager Ryan Pace said he would consider contract extensions, notably for Forte and receiver Alshon Jeffery, as individual cases. But Pace’s free-agent spending, while thrifty, also shows that he isn’t opposed to signing veterans.

Safety Antrel Rolle, 32, and receiver Eddie Royal, who turns 29 next month, both signed three-year contracts with the Bears. Royal, who was selected two picks before Forte in the second round in 2008, received a $10 million total guarantee. Forte has a $9.2 million salary cap hit this season

Fox and Pace haven’t publicly stated their intentions, but it’s likely they’d prefer to see how Forte works in coordinator Adam Gase’s offense before committing to him.

In his first season as Denver’s offensive coordinator in 2013, Gase relied on veteran Knowshon Moreno, who started 15 games and ran for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns on 241 carries. Moreno, though, wasn’t re-signed as Gase turned to four different running backs in 2014.

Forte’s play the past two seasons definitely warrants serious consideration past 2015. No back has gained more yards since his draft year and his production has actually increased with age. Fox also has said that he doesn’t see Forte slowing down.

“I’m anxious to see him on the field in practice,” Fox said at the NFL annual meetings. “I thought he had a productive year last year more so as a receiver than as a runner. But that is a dimension that is important to the success of any offense.”

Fox’s past drafts with the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers show that his teams aren’t opposed to taking a running back early in the draft.

The Panthers and Fox passed on Forte twice in 2008, which included taking running back Jonathan Stewart at No. 13. Two years earlier, Carolina selected DeAngelo Williams at No. 27.

The Broncos drafted Montee Ball with the 58th overall pick in 2013.

When Pace was in New Orleans, the Saints picked Mark Ingram at No. 28 in 2011.

The Bears’ No. 7 pick may not be the right time to look at a running back, even if Georgia’s Todd Gurley is healthy. But their second- and third-round selections make for intriguing decisions.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said he has seven running backs with grades in first three rounds.

After Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordan, the Bears will have Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, Miami’s Duke Johnson, Boise State’s Jay Ajayi and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon to consider.

“And after that there’s still a bunch of really good players I think can work at a rotation and provide different qualities and strengths,” McShay said.

POSITION SPOTLIGHT: RUNNING BACK

Rating the Bears’ need: Medium

Matt Forte excelled in Marc Trestman’s offense, totaling 3,779 yards and 22 touchdowns over the last two seasons. But he wants an extension and was noticeably absent at the start of offseason training at Halas Hall.

Last year, the Bears drafted running back Ka’Deem Carey in the fourth round. He was the first running back drafted by the Bears since Forte in 2008.

At one point last season, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer expressed a desire to get Carey more touches, but they never came. With Forte rarely leaving the field, Carey only had 36 carries for 158 yards.

Bears also signed complementary back Jacquizz Rodgers to a one-year deal this offseason.

Best of the best

Two future stars top this year’s class in Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. They could end the two-year drought of running backs not being selected in the first round.

“[Gurley is] one of the best five, six or seven talents in this entire draft,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “He’s an absolute freight train as a runner.”

Other options

Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, an Oak Forest graduate, met with the Bears at the NFL Scouting Combine and is a projected second-round pick.

Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Miami’s Duke Johnson round out NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock’s top-5 running backs.

Boise State’s Jay Ajayi has injury concerns, but could potentially be a Day 2 selection.

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

Twitter: @adamjahns

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