No, the New England Patriots Don't Need to Sign Matt Forte

Would running back Matt Forte help the New England Patriots? Sure, but it's not a done deal.

The offseason hot stove in the National Football League seems to be running a little cold with real transaction rumors.

With little to do besides scout rookies until the NFL Draft happens in late April, we’re getting the same also-ran reports day in and day out: Johnny Manziel is going to be cut by the Cleveland Browns, Doug Martin is going to test the free agent market instead of re-signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, etc.

One recurring rumor, though, stands out above the rest due to a mix of potential NFL impact and bizarre specificity. It goes something like this: “Running back Matt Forte to the New England Patriots?”

I’ll be honest, adding one of the all-time great running backs to a team with perennial playoff juju would be a blast as a fan (Steven Jackson who?), but does the Chicago Bears’ veteran really have a spot open to him on the AFC East titans’ roster, or is this just wishful speculation?

Should the Patriots sign Matt Forte?

If You Can’t Take the Heat…

First of all, we have to inquire slightly about whether or not it’s worth it to even consider signing the 31-year old Forte for the money he’d likely want. We know DeMarco Murray cashed in on a spectacular season last year by getting a five-year, $40 million contract from the Philadelphia Eagles ($8 million average annual value, or AAV). Arian Foster of the Houston Texans and Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs are of a similar age to Forte and are receiving $8.7 million and $9.05 million in AAV currently.

It’s likely that the aging star would want to be compensated highly in a short-term deal, as he’s still producing at a high level. Our own Jim Sannes suggests that he would deserve it if a team would pay it. To quote Jim: “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 and Rashad Jennings. Running in the same conditions, [Jeremy] Langford was 11th.” Check Jim’s article out for the full skinny on why the Bears are silly to let Forte go.

We are here, though, to understand the Pats’ perspective on him. If he’s available around Frank Gore's price tag last year (three years, $12 million), then his performance indicates he’d be a smart buy for them. If he’s closer to the Murrays of the world, this could be a risky gambit for New England.

Too Many Cooks

Why would it be risky to spend the money if he’s still playing at a high level? Contrary to what many people think, the value of a player contract is more than just “talent per cost.” Talent means nothing if there’s not a place for him to play. In the Patriots’ dense running back depth chart, Forte might be a redundant asset.

We can see how Forte fits with the Patriots by examining the value created by their running backs last season, using a little analytic called Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a metric that helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Forte rushes for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows the Rushing NEP and Reception NEP value on a per-play and per-target basis -- since multiple players missed parts of the season due to injury, this was the fairest way to compare them -- provided by each running back the Patriots had this year. I then compared Forte’s numbers the same way. See the results for yourself.

Player Rush NEP/P Success Rate Rec NEP/T   Success Rate
Dion Lewis 0.19 46.94% 0.51 77.78%
James White -0.17 27.27% 0.70 67.50%
LeGarrette Blount 0.02 41.21% 0.48 50.00%
Brandon Bolden -0.16 31.75% 0.38 52.63%
Matt Forte 0.00 46.33% 0.43 75.86%

We can see that there are a lot of pieces in this depth chart -- which also excluded Jackson and Joey Iosefa for having fewer than 50 opportunities this year -- but only one complete player: Dion Lewis. Had he not torn his ACL, Lewis would have likely been the primary running back for the Patriots in 2015, rather than forcing them back to a committee approach. In fact, he was averaging 7.5 carries per-game before the game he got injured in, and (even with some regression in Rushing NEP per attempt) he would have easily been in the top-five for Rushing NEP among running backs with at least 100 carries this year.

The scary thing is that Forte’s Success Rates are nearly identical to Lewis’, but his per-play Rushing and Reception NEP scores are worse than the Patriot's. Part of that can be attributed to the smaller sample size for Lewis this year, but this is the clearest case for redundancy that can be made.

Just so we could see the team as a whole, I grouped the Patriots’ backs by primary “runners” and “receivers” designations -- since we know they typically use backfield committees based on skill set. Does that change how Forte would fit in?

Player Rush NEP/P Success Rate Rec NEP/P Success Rate
NE Runners 0.05 42.52% -- --
NE Receivers -- -- 0.56 68.42%
Matt Forte 0.00 46.33% 0.43 75.86%

Perhaps Forte could be an improvement on the premier plodder of the NFL, LeGarrette Blount, as a tag-team with Lewis, but he doesn’t bring nearly as much to the receiving game as Lewis and James White. This does nothing to suggest that Forte would be anything more than another contributor to this team, and for a player who was the face of Chicago football since Brian Urlacher retired, that may not suit him well.

As Clear as Split-Pea Soup

The question comes back to us, then: would Matt Forte have a place on the Patriots?

My answer: sure. He would be a great improvement over the depth they have like Steven Jackson (-0.10 Rushing NEP per play) and Brandon Bolden, but because he doesn’t bring anything to the table that the Patriots don’t already have, he won’t likely be a locked-in, number-one running back the way that he probably intends.

For those of you wondering, “Well, since Dion Lewis tore his ACL (and just broke out this year), maybe they’ll want him as insurance in case he isn’t healthy in time or isn’t as good.” According to the Boston Herald, Lewis’ surgery went swimmingly, and he is on-track to be ready for full contact before 2016 training camp. They could sign Forte for depth and insurance, but we saw that his feathers get ruffled when he was in a late-season committee with Jeremy Langford on the Chicago Bears in 2015; there would have to be some promise that he gets the lead role.

I think the fit could be right from the production and leadership Forte would provide. His signing would almost certainly ensure that Blount would be let go as an unrestricted free agent, and Lewis would be relegated to third-down and change-of-pace duties. Bolden would remain primarily a special teams player. But it all depends on how the potentially historically deep free agent market -- and Forte’s promised role on the team -- pans out.

Do the Patriots need Forte? No.