With the franchise tag temporarily taking care of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton's future as a Chicago Bear, Phil Emery and the rest of the front office are setting their sights on the free agent market and next month's NFL Draft. However, while the tag does guarantee we'll see No. 69 in navy blue next season, it prolongs the inevitable conversation of Melton's long-term future with the franchise, and that should worry you as a Chicago Bears fan.
It worries the hell out of me.
Unlike last season, when Matt Forte's contract proved to be a headache leading all the way into camp, don't expect the 26 year-old Melton to take issue with collecting an $8.45 million salary in 2013, even coming off of a career year. However, with Henry Melton making a name for himself as one of the NFL's most disruptive three-technique's it'd be nice if the Bears could lock in a deal with the pillar of their interior before that price continues to rise.
In some regards you can understand the general skepticism. Melton did slow toward the end of last season after a blistering start where he racked up 4.5 sacks in his first five games, and ideally you'd like to see how he fits into new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's system. But, as long as the Bears are in the 4-3, you simply can't allow a premium three-technique to slip through the cracks.
Melton was a project coming out of college as a former running back at the University of Texas who grew into a defensive tackle's body, but now he's become one of the best interior pass rushers in the League. He gives the Bears’ defense push in the 'B' gap, which goes a long way toward deepening drops and allowing guys like Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton to take more direct routes to the quarterback.
At this point, Melton is clearly in the upper echelon of interior defensive lineman in professional football, and that certainly justifies the franchise tag. However, if you have the opportunity to extend a productive 26 year-old, AND you can potentially lower his cap number while doing so, you have to do it.
I certainly understand why Emery's focuses are elsewhere. This franchise is in limbo—trying to both rebuild and sustain their current success—so the NFL Draft and Free Agency present more pressing issues at the moment. However, I hope the conversation circles back around to Henry Melton sooner than later.
Melton's value is paramount not only for all the reasons I've already mentioned, but with the core of the Chicago Bears’ defense aging quickly, Melton is a potential cornerstone of this unit moving forward. Along with Wootton and Shea McClellin and Stephen Paea, these guys have an opportunity to anchor a new era of Bears’ defense as we see Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs go by the wayside in coming years.
As the Bears move into that next phase and away from the Urlacher/Briggs era, the young talent on the defensive line should be a strength. But, that all starts with Melton in my eyes, and that's why it's critical for Emery and Marc Trestman to re-sign him as quickly as possible.
Henry Melton may be overshadowed at times by names like Urlacher, Peppers, Briggs and Tillman right now, but he's an essential part of the Chicago Bears' future success.
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