This is the second part of an in-depth series that will examine the status of the top Chicago Bears free agents. The defense will be the focus in this second part.
The Bears have 26 free agents, including 22 unrestricted free agents this off-season. The NFL Combine (Feb. 22), free agent period (March 11) and NFL Draft (May 8) are all around the corner.
Last week, we took a look at defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff's future in Chicago. Today, we examine the status of defensive tackle Henry Melton moving forward.
Who: Defensive tackle Henry Melton, 27-year-old, Texas
2013 contract: one-year deal, $8.45 million
The 2012 Pro Bowler enjoyed a career year in 2012-13 racking up 32 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles, but unfortunately this past season didn't go as planned for the 6-foot-3, 295 pound lineman.
Melton appeared in only three games, making five tackles and one forced fumble before tearing his ACL in his left knee in a Week Three win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The next day it was announced that Melton was placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season.
In late December Melton ran into some legal trouble. He was charged with misdemeanor assault and public intoxication after being arrested at a sports bar in his hometown of Grapevine, Texas.
It wasn't the first time that Melton had been arrested. During his junior season (07') at the University of Texas, he was put behind bars for driving intoxicated downtown Austin.
The fourth-round pick made the transition to defensive tackle during his junior season at Texas after spending time at running back. He recorded 40 tackles, 9.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in his first two seasons with the Bears (2010, 2011).
He started 15 games in 2011, racking up seven sacks (third most by a DT that season) and looked like a legitimate pass-rushing threat in the Bears cover-2 scheme. It reminded many of the great work Tommie Harris did for the Bears for many years before suffering career-ending knee injuries.
So, the Bears placed the franchise tag on Melton last off-season, but the price turned out to be too much due to the season-ending ACL injury.
Now the Bears are left to wonder how much Melton is really worth. He certainly didn't do himself any favors with his most recent arrest, but if he can prove his health he should have many suitors come free agency time.
"All the coaches have said some real positive things," said Melton, who is training at the Bears facilities everyday. "I am just waiting to see what is going to happen. I'm all for staying here."
"He has got to fully dedicate himself to rehab. He has to fully dedicate his mind and his focus to football, which is extremely important. There was a reason we franchise-tagged him," Bears general manger Phil Emery said to the media on Jan. 2."
The recovery process has been long and grueling for Melton, but luckily it happened early enough in the season for him to shoot for a return when off-season practices kickoff this May.
"There was a reason for that investment. The under-tackle position in the scheme that we're in is the engine that drives the defense,"Emery continued. "And when he was in the game, even though from a statistical standpoint he wasn't off to a fast start, it was very evident on tape that he was a very important part of the defense."
Emery admitted that the team's depth at defensive tackle was left one man short when free-agent signee Sedrick Ellis decided to retire during training camp.
"From a personnel perspective, from my perspective, I had not done enough to provide enough depth," he said. "We were at least one defensive lineman short."
After watching a Bears' defense allow a record high 478 points and 6,313 total yards, the need for athletes on that side of the ball are at an all time high, especially at defensive tackle.
Why will he be back?
As of now, disappointing Stephen Paea is the only defensive tackle under contract. Besides Melton, Jeremiah Ratliff, Nate Collins, Corey Wootton, Landon Cohen are all unrestricted free agents. The lack of depth last year was a concern, so the Bears know they better bring back some of those guys and bring in help from elsewhere. Melton is likely looking for a long-term deal in the ballpark of $5-6 million a season. He has talent and Emery noted that above. As a full-time starter from 2011-12, Melton racked up 13 sacks and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. If he can prove he's 100 percent healthy and committed to the game of football, I can see the Bears trying hard to bring him back. They will offer him a contract, I can guarantee that. It just depends at this point what he thinks he's worth and what the Bears think he's worth. He'd be smart to stay here because the opportunity to start is there and the scheme fits his talents.
Why won't he be back?
The Bears have to decide if they think he is worth elite money at this juncture. Ratliff, Collins and Wootton could all be re-signed and paired with a veteran and rookie. If they decide to go that route, then Melton would obviously be out of the picture. The problem is the Bears have so many guys to make decisions on this off-season including veteran cornerback Charles Tillman, linebackers James Anderson and D.J. Williams, overpriced defensive end Julius Peppers, safety Major Wright and the defensive tackles mentioned above. Melton could prove to be too expensive for the Bears taste. But it all comes back to what Emery said about Melton's importance to this defense. Would he be willing to risk letting Melton walk and leave the position lacking depth and enough talent for a second straight season? I highly doubt that, but you never know exactly what the price range is for Melton and if the Bears will shell out that kind of dough.
Up Next: D.J. Williams
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