After eight rock-solid seasons of fantasy success in Chicago, the Bears told Matt Forte thanks—and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. But even at the advanced (for a running back) age of 30 Forte found another gig as a feature back, signing a three-year, $12 million ($9 million guaranteed) deal with the Jets. It’s a different uniform, a different coach, a different offense for Forte; can we still expect the same productivity?
On the surface, it may appear that Forte’s departure from the Windy City was precipitated by a decline in performance. However, his career-low 898 rushing yards can be attributed to three missed games due to injury—and the Bears’ desire to test-drive Jeremy Langford in preparation for the end of Forte’s contract. His career-low 44 receptions—on the heels of his ridiculous 102-catch 2014 campaign—stemmed from a significant change in offense, specifically pass-happy Marc Trestman exiting and the tandem of John Fox and Adam Gase taking over.
But looking past those numbers you’ll find that Forte’s yards per carry average perked back up above four and his per catch average of 8.8 was his best in four years. He also notched his third straight (and fifth overall) top-10 fantasy back campaign.
So Chan Gailey and the Jets get a still-productive veteran whose best days may be behind him but who still has something left in the tank. The question is how will Gailey employ Forte to wring that remaining productivity out of him? Over his 13 seasons as an NFL head coach and/or offensive coordinator, Gailey has had exactly one back catch more passes than Forte’s worst season (44 twice, both in injury-shortened campaigns). Fortunately that year was last year when Bilal Powel caught 47 for the Jets. In fact, the only two seasons in which Gailey had a back catch 40 or more passes have come in his last two seasons of calling plays: Powell’s 47 last year and CJ Spiller’s 43 in 2012. Over his NFL tenure Gailey has consistently demonstrated an ability to adapt to the times and to his players, so just because the average Gailey backfield has caught a meager 75 balls per season doesn’t mean he won’t tap into Forte’s abilities as a pass-catcher.
The concern comes in just how Forte and Powell might split the pass-catching workload. Last year Chris Ivory caught 30 balls to Powell’s 47 as the Jets posted a Gailey-high 94 running back receptions. In Gailey’s previous stop, the Bills had Spiller and Fred Jackson splitting receptions almost equally: Spiller caught 43 to Jackson’s 34 in 2012, the tandem each caught 39 in 2011, and Jackson caught 31 to Spiller’s 24 in 2010. Assuming Gailey’s backfield receiving stats continue to grow the Forte/Powell tandem should split roughly 100 catches. Will Powell keep his third-down duties even though that skill set is one of Forte’s fortes? It may be the biggest question in the Jets’ backfield, and training camp and the preseason are unlikely to provide many clues.
On the bright side Forte should slide into Ivory’s former role as the feature back, and while he’s a completely different style of runner he’s been effective in that role. Moreover, despite the Bears using other backs at the goal line and the perception that Fore isn’t a “touchdown guy”—he’s never had double-digit rushing scores in a single season—his short-yardage and red zone stats are surprisingly solid. For his career Forte has converted two-thirds of his short-yardage touches into first downs or touchdowns, and while that number is augmented by his receiving stats—he’s turned all 23 of his career short-yardage catches into first downs or TDs—his rushing conversion percentage is a solid 64% as well. Forte has also turned 65% of his red-zone catches and 38% of his red zone rushes into first downs or scores as well, an overall conversion rate of 41.5% for his career—and a 50% or better rate each of the past three seasons.
Forte’s track record and Gailey’s flexibility should ease concerns about what the change of address might do to Forte’s fantasy value. Even if he gives up some of his receiving work to Powell, there’s enough left on his plate for him to post a ninth straight season as a top-20 fantasy back.