The Chicago Bears lost defensive tackle Amobi Okoye in free agency this offseason. After racking up 4.0 sacks as Henry Melton's backup, Okoye bolted for more money in Tampa Bay. Up to this point, the club has yet to find an established player to take Okoye's place.
That leaves Melton as the only experienced 3-technique tackle on the club. In his first year as a starter last season, Melton earned 7.0 sacks, third highest amongst defensive tackles. With another year of experience under his belt, Melton could be on the verge of a breakthrough.
"It's only going to help me for this year to be where I want to be, which is hopefully Pro Bowl status," Melton said after Chicago's second-to-last practice of organized team activities (OTAs).
Yet if Melton reaches that lofty goal, which is not at all unrealistic, the club will have to spend heavily to re-sign him when his contract expires at the end of this season. With no backup plan in place, it would behoove the Bears to get Melton, who won't turn 26 until October, signed long-term.
DT Henry Melton
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
But to this point, the club has not approached Melton's agent regarding a contract extension.
"Not a lot of talk has been going on," said Melton. "I love Chicago and I want to be here. Hopefully something can get done."
He said if the club is willing to offer him an extension, he'd be open to signing one.
"Oh yeah, I love Chicago. I can't really see myself being anywhere else. I love everything: the city, the fans, the coaching staff and the guys. We've got good camaraderie around here."
Melton is an extremely agile, athletic under tackle – he played running back his first two collegiate seasons at Texas – with the quickness to get consistent one-gap penetration. He was drafted as a defensive end but bulked up last offseason to play full time at tackle.
Last season, he rotated on occasion at defensive end, when Julius Peppers chose to slide inside. Melton's positional diversity is just one more reason the Bears would be wise to get him inked before his rookie contract runs out.
The club currently has four players competing for the backup spot to Melton this year: John McCargo (one career start), Nate Collins (no career starts), Demario Pressley (no career starts) and undrafted rookie Ronnie Cameron. As you can see, there is a grand total of one start amongst the foursome. I
If Melton ends up losing time with injury – or leaves via free agency, where there will be numerous teams interested in his services – Chicago's defense will be in dire straits.
Even though there's a lot on the line, Melton said he won't let his contract situation be a distraction this season.
"No, I'm not going to let it really get in my way of being who I want to be this year," he said. "I still have a lot to prove for this defense, and I do want to show that I am the guy of the future for this defense."
Melton struggles at times against the run but considering his effectiveness as a pass rusher, his young age and the lack of options behind him, GM Phil Emery may want to make signing him a top priority, before the open market prices him out of Chicago's range.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.