Bears tag Melton, continue work toward long-term deal

Bears tag Melton, continue work toward long-term deal
Melton (69) becomes the Bears’ fourth-highest cap hit in 2013 with the franchise tag applied. Photo: Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Bears used their franchise tag designation on defensive tackle Henry Melton on Friday, ensuring the 26 year-old former fourth-round draft selection remains in Chicago in 2013. Melton will be entering his fourth season with the Bears, coming off a six sack, 43 tackle, two forced fumble season—easily his best.

The Bears issued a statement from general manager Phil Emery via email on the decision. “Henry has been a good player for us and we are using the franchise tag so his development continues as a Bear,” Emery said. “We will continue our conversations with Henry and work toward a multi-year agreement.”

The Bears hired defensive coordinator Mel Tucker this offseason and have said they intend to continue running a 4-3 defensive front in which a disruptive three-technique player like Melton will be invaluable. Chicago does not currently have another player on the roster to fill that role.

With the tag in place, however, the Bears are committing a lot of money—roughly 32.5% of their 2013 salary cap ($39.98M of $123M)—on defense between Melton, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, a potentially tough pill to swallow considering Emery just hired an offensive-minded head coach in Marc Trestman.

But Chicago can potentially reduce Melton’s cap hit this season with a long-term deal. Likewise, a contract extension for Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman, who is in the final year of his deal and comes with an $8M hit himself, could help alleviate the cap burden. Melton’s tag figure as a DT is now officially set by the League at $8.45M.

Additionally, the Bears may have to consider a restructure for defensive end Julius Peppers, who comes with a cap hit of nearly $16.2M in 2013. That hit, however, only gets larger in successive years at just under $17.2M in 2014 and $19.7M in 2015. A restructure to clear space now likely only squeezes the vice tighter in future seasons.

Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall pull in as the team’s second and third highest cap hits, respectively, and the Bears could also consider extensions for both players in order to help assuage the financial pressure. Marshall might be somewhat unlikely as he’s under contract through 2014.

As things stand today, the Bears have just over $4.1M remaining in cap room and have expressed interest in re-signing LB Brian Urlacher, DT Nate Collins, OG Lance Louis and OT Jonathan Scott. They are also expected to be interested in re-signing CB Kelvin Hayden, DL Israel Idonije and LB Nick Roach. Considering they will also need about $4M to sign Draft selections, you can see the position they are in.

Clearing cap space via cuts, restructures and extensions is no longer a reserve tactic, it’s an absolute necessity, and Bears’ contract/cap guru Cliff Stein has his work cut out for him.

As for what Melton might be looking for in terms of a long-term deal, the Chicago Tribune reports the two sides are, at least right now, worlds apart on the number. After calling himself the best defensive tackle in the League, it’s reasonable to expect Melton wants to be paid among the best.

Some of the more extravagant DT contracts handed out as of recent include $40M guaranteed to the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh, $37.1M guaranteed to the Ravens’ Haloti Ngata and $35M guaranteed to the Buccaneers’ Gerald McCoy. While I’m sure Melton would love to see that kind of paper, he’s probably in the more realistic $20+M range with a settle point of closer to $18M guaranteed on a five-year deal. That of course is only an educated guess.

Despite the 2013 hit of $8.45M, I tend to believe that if Phil Emery can’t get Melton and agent Jordan Woy down to the more reasonable range of $17M to $18M guaranteed by the July 15 deadline, he could very well eat the tag and look toward 2014. That of course is a gamble as Melton could increase his value with another strong season.

There is no easy answer for the Bears if they want to get in the external free agent market for help along the offensive line, at tight end or even at the linebacker position. Luckily for them, there is depth at most of those positions in the 2013 Draft if that is indeed where their focus is.

It could in fact be their only option.

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Filed under: Free Agency, Players

Tags: Henry Melton

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