Eagles' Jackson, Bears' Forte: Underpaid superstars

THEY SHOULD be $6 million men.

Right now, they're $0.6 million men.

Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson and Bears running back Matt Forte play each other Monday night.

No player in the NFL is more feared than Jackson.

No player in the NFL is more productive than Forte.

No players in the NFL are nearly as underpaid.

Forte and Jackson, picked 44th and 49th overall in 2008, have far outplayed their rookie deals. Each will make about $600,000 this season, despite having displayed bionic abilities over their first three.

Each deserves the sort of guaranteed money their peers have gotten, about $6 million per year over the life of the contract; bankable cash going to Brandon Marshall and Santonio Holmes and Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson.

Both the Bears and Eagles have balked. They fear drop-offs from Forte, who carries a huge load, and Jackson, who is smallish and fearless.

Both appear likely to get slapped with franchise tags the next two seasons, which will make them rich, but which will make them only about half as rich as they should be, and, worse, will enrage them.

Both are playing through the annoying distraction.

So, which one means more to his team?

"That's a loaded question," said Eagles safety Kurt Coleman, nimbly.

He's right. But there is a right answer.

Forte, clearly.

But not by much.

"No disrespect to DeSean, but he's a receiver," said Eagles linebacker Moise Fokou. "I don't see him doing 15 reverses a game. Forte, right now, is probably a bigger threat."

That's because Forte, right now, essentially is Chicago's only threat. Chicago's surge from 1-2 to 4-3 coincided with more Forte: In the last four games, he scored four touchdowns and averaged 26 touches (rushing, receiving) and 171 yards.

In Chicago's seven games, inconsistent quarterback Jay Cutler has completed less than 60 percent of his passes and thrown six interceptions.

Jackson, meanwhile, was actually less of a factor on the Eagles' stat pages in their two season-saving wins. He caught three passes each of the last two games, for 46 and 31 yards.

That is less a measure of his worth, though, than a measure of other teams' respect. Jackson went to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons and averages 45.2 yards per score on his 28 career touchdowns, including punt returns.

And, so, teams routinely drop safeties out of the TV picture, leaving the choicest part of the field - the middle - open for speedy receiver Jeremy Maclin, devastating running back LeSean McCoy and workhorses Brent Celek and Jason Avant.

"Pick your poison. Forte's 45 percent of the Bears' offense right now," said safety Nate Allen. "But you've got to double DJ every time. And he can hurt you on special teams. For me, I'd rather not face DJ over Forte."

Allen knows that, while Jackson is just 18th in the league with 487 yards and third on the team with 27 catches, his mere presence has overwhelming effects.

The Eagles lead the NFL in total yards per game. A lot of that is quarterback Michael Vick, but, really, where would Vick be without the fastest man in football occupying two defenders every play?

For that matter, where would McCoy be? Or Maclin?

Maybe they would all be fine, and productive, and, perhaps, even more appreciated.

It's easy to figure where the Bears would be without Forte.

"Matt Forte has played as well as any running back in the league," Bears coach Lovie Smith said yesterday.

No kidding. He leads the NFL with 1,091 yards from scrimmage, and he has touched the ball 162 times, more than 23 times a game.

Earlier this week, in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Forte asserted that he should be rewarded before, he said, the Bears finish "grinding me into a pulp."

The Eagles love that imagery.

"When a team is able to do what they want to do with you on the ground and in the air, that becomes dangerous," Fokou said. "And when you watch this guy play, he's running with a purpose this year. He's playing with a purpose. I feel like money's owed to him.

"He's an underpaid guy. He's probably the most valuable player on offense right now.

"I wouldn't want to play against this Forte guy right now."

Fokou does not have that option.


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