Matt Forte Is Still One of the NFL's Best Running Backs
It's going to be strange next year seeing Matt Forte in a new uniform.
For years, Forte has been the consistent, reliable face of the Chicago Bears. Even when times got bad, you knew Forte would be productive.
Now, Forte is set to hit free agency as the team hands the reins to the younger and cheaper Jeremy Langford. It certainly makes sense for the Bears, but now Forte finds himself without a team entering his age-31 season. That's the running back danger zone.
That said, it isn't all doom and gloom for Forte. Even though his age is advancing, his productivity hasn't hit the skids just yet, and he can still be a valuable asset wherever he lands.
Let's quantify this using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of opponent.
Here's how NEP works. Prior to each play, a team has an expected number of points it will score on its current drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 2) will increase that, while a negative play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 4) will decrease it. The sum of the fluctuations in expected points over the course of the season is NEP.
First, let's break down what Forte has done as a runner over the past few years to see if he's still got the juice that made him one of the league's top backs. Then, we'll dive into Forte's main source of value -- as a passing-game asset -- to see what kind of assistance he can provide to his new squad.
Forte's Recent-Season Improvement
The general career arc of a running back in the NFL involves a peak around their age-26 or age-27 season. Forte's path doesn't fit that mold at all.
Because of the general inefficiency of running the football relative to passing, it's best to view runners through the lens of Rushing Success Rate. This looks at the percentage of plays on which a player increases his team's expected points for the drive. The league-average mark in 2015 was 39.91%, though that was a step behind what it had been in previous seasons.
The table below shows Forte's Success Rate for every season throughout his career. For reference, 2008 was his age-23 season, meaning he should have hit his peak in either 2011 or 2012. It actually came in 2014.
In the slightly-modified words of noted running-back career arc expert Jay Z, "30's the new 20, brotha, Forte's so hot still (grunt)."
Forte's Success Rate improved every year from 2009 to 2014 before going down slightly this year. We should expect a bit more of a drop next year, but that would still be a great mark.
If Forte's 46.33% Success Rate this year looks great relative to a league-average mark of 39.91%, that's because it is. Of the 44 running backs who had at least 100 carries, Forte had the third best Success Rate in the league behind David Johnson and Rashad Jennings. Running in the same conditions, Langford was 11th.
Clearly, Forte as a rusher is still a top-shelf option, despite his age. But that isn't even what makes him so valuable in the present-day setting of the league. That would be through his involvement in the passing game. He hasn't seen a dip there yet, either.
Continued Effectiveness Through the Air
The running back position has seen a devaluation in recent years, with fewer and fewer players being taken in the first round of the draft relative to as recently as 2012. However, there will always be a place in the NFL for pass-catching backs, and few do it better than Forte.
Here, we'll look at Forte's production through the eyes of Reception NEP per target. This shows the expected points the player added on all of his receptions during a season divided by the number of total targets they saw. Forte's arc isn't quite as defined as it was with his Success Rate, but there still doesn't appear to be much of a decline.
|Season||Reception NEP per Target|
His mark this year was the third-best total of his career. He's not peaking here as he was with his rushing, but it's not as if he's suddenly out of gas.
Once again, even when we're just looking at this season, Forte was one of the most efficient receiving backs in the league. There were 33 running backs this year who had at least 40 targets, and Forte was ninth in Reception NEP per target. Langford was a bit more effective here as he ranked fourth, but Forte's numbers hold up well.
A Word of Caution
Even in his age-30 season, Forte was one of the better running backs in the league, both as a rusher and a receiver. He should be a no-brainer in free agency, right? I would lean yes here, but that endorsement comes with a bit of hesitation.
During last year's offseason, we looked at the effectiveness of running backs who signed as free agents. Almost every running back who signed a deal worth at least $1.5 million declined in efficiency the next year, and even more saw decreases in volume.
The intent there was to provide a "buyer beware" to suitors of DeMarco Murray after his high-volume final season with the Dallas Cowboys. That one clearly didn't work out well. That said, I don't think it should stop teams from pursuing Forte -- at the right price, at least.
Because of Forte's age, teams know he's not going to be what he was during his 2014 season. That's going to allow him to come at a lower price tag than he would have if he were younger. Decreased expectations can allow this guy to still be a valuable add in free agency, even if he does see a down-tick from his marks in previous seasons.
The overall takeaway here should be that Matt Forte is still a darn good running back, and he has earned himself a spot on another roster.
Because Forte only hit his peak as a rusher in 2014 and didn't see a major decline in 2015, it seems like he's still got some good years ahead of him. He was one of the most efficient backs in the league this year, so it would seem silly to dismiss him simply because of his age.
Forte's value in the passing game also makes him a bit of a safer investment than other backs on the market. If a team is looking to get more out of its running backs out of the backfield, there are few better outlets than Forte.
Yes, there will be concerns over Forte due to his age, and those concerns are valid. However, if those concerns end up driving Forte's price down significantly, he could end up being a steal in the free-agency market. This guy may not be a spring chicken any more, but he can still produce at a level worthy of a starting gig in the league.