Commentary

Bears confident rookie Forte can shoulder load

Originally Published: June 24, 2008
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com

In a news conference last week, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith hinted he would enter training camp with a rookie as his top tailback.

Veterans Shaun Alexander and Kevin Jones were available on the free-agent market, but Smith expressed confidence in rookie Matt Forte.

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And guess what?

The sky didn't fall.

The pillars at Soldier Field remained upright.

Life carried on.

The Bears' thinking could always change as training camp grows closer. But the idea of using a rookie as the primary ball carrier is far from shocking -- even for a team like the Bears that figures to rely heavily on the running game. In fact, many coaches believe running back is the offensive position where it is easiest for a rookie to assimilate and make a quick contribution.

Schemes and philosophies can vary, but a running back's primary job is the same at every level: Find the hole, accelerate and make the first defender miss. More than anywhere else, raw skills and instincts can triumph over inexperience.

Recent NFL history offers ample evidence. Since the 1993 start of the salary-cap era, 44 rookies have rushed for at least 700 yards in a season. Of those, 27 have achieved the 1,000-yard plateau -- and not all were high-profile draft picks. For every Adrian Peterson (1,341 yards in 2007) and LaDainian Tomlinson (1,236 in 2001), there has been a Domanick Williams (1,031 in 2003) and Terrell Davis (1,117 in 1995).

080623 Matt Forte Combine

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Highlights from Tulane running back Matt Forte's performance at the 2008 NFL combine.

Environment can impact a rookie's performance -- Denver coach Mike Shanahan has coaxed 1,000-yard seasons from four rookies -- but ultimately any rookie with confidence and an adequate skill set has a chance to produce right away.

Some coaches throw their rookie backs into the fray immediately. Tomlinson started 16 games as a rookie in 2001, while Jones started 14 for the Lions and rushed for 1,133 yards in 2004.

More intriguing, some rookie runners force their way onto the field even while playing for coaches who prefer veteran ball carriers.

Consider the case of Peterson, who -- as hard as it might be to remember now -- actually faced significant obstacles to getting on the field as a rookie. The Vikings already had an incumbent 1,200-yard rusher in Chester Taylor, and coach Brad Childress had no plans to cast him aside for Peterson or anyone else.

Peterson, meanwhile, was nursing a now-forgotten collarbone injury and was wearing a special protective pad as training camp opened. He took his place behind Taylor on the depth chart and waited his turn.

As late as mid-October, Peterson was returning kickoffs and rotating with Taylor in the backfield on a 2-1 split -- two series for Taylor and one for Peterson. In fact, Childress didn't name Peterson the full-time tailback until two weeks after Peterson erupted for 224 yards against the Bears.

In this case, Peterson's extraordinary skills overrode the Vikings' original intent, proving how valuable a rookie running back can be. He set an NFL record two weeks after taking over the starting job, rushing for 296 yards -- also surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the season -- Nov. 4 against the San Diego Chargers. Defenses ganged up on him during the second half of the season, ignoring the Vikings' weak passing game, but he still finished as one of three young runners to produce exceptional seasons in 2007.

Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch rushed for 1,115 yards while Green Bay's Ryan Grant -- a first-year player who spent 2005 on the Giants' practice squad and 2006 on their injured reserve list -- amassed 956 yards after emerging from a backfield committee midway through the season.

Childress mused recently that Peterson "isn't going to sneak up on anybody this season," and the same is true for Lynch and Grant. But that annual rite leaves a whole new crop of rookie runners to burst on the scene this season.

Darren McFadden, selected No. 5 overall by Oakland, was at the top of this year's draft class. The Bears made Forte the fifth running back taken, nabbing him with the 44th overall selection.

From a physical standpoint, at 6-foot-2, Forte's combination of size and 4.4 speed makes him a candidate to be a full-time NFL runner. Like all rookies, he must adjust to the one new aspect of his job -- picking up NFL blitzes -- but every season there are examples of those who made the transition and helped their teams right away.

And helped keep the sky from falling.

Kevin Seifert covers the NFL for ESPN.com