In 2012, Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton came into the final year of his contract with two goals: improve his run defense and become more consistent. Any questions surrounding those improvements were answered with a resounding season by the fourth-year interior defender.
The talk of Chicago's defense has for years surrounded Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, as they have been the cornerstones of the defense for nearly a decade. Two of the three still play at a very high level but all are on the wrong-side of 30 and are approaching the end of their careers. Even Julius Peppers turned 33 last week.
Melton however represents the future of the Bears' defense, a dominant force the team can build around, regardless of scheme. He's the most important player on the defense, because he has rare talent and athletic ability that few defensive tackles possess.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Melton finished as the fifth highest rated pass rushing defensive tackle in 2012 and had the best run stop percentage of any DT in the NFL. In overall production, per PFF, Melton was second to only Bengals All Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Melton had a better season than Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Nick Fairley and others drafted higher than him and with more overall experience at the position. Melton uses a rare combination of explosive athleticism, a quick first step and extreme agility that no other defensive tackle in the league can match. He's also developed power to his game and is relentless in his approach. On film you see his never-ending motor and power, and at 26, he's only going to get better.
In this first clip we see Melton work hard on a stretch play to the outside against Ryan Khalil of the Carolina Panthers.
Melton works through the scrum, gets caught up in the wash, then trips and falls to the ground.
Despite being on the ground, he doesn't quit on the play. He gets up from his knees and still makes the tackle on Jonathan Steward for no gain.
In a game in which the Bears were criticized for playing down to their competition and barely winning a game they should have lost, Melton didn't lower his standards.
Later in the Panthers game, Melton is seemingly stoned at the point of attack by a double team. But because he plays with such superb pad level, he's not giving up any ground.
As he continues to work into his gap, he gains inside leverage and sheds the blockers to make the play on the cutback run by Stewart. This type of disciplined play by Melton is one more reason he's invaluable to the Bears.
Still in the Panthers game we find one of Melton's more dominant snaps of the season. He's lined up across from Khalil, whom he Melton throws aside like a rag doll. He then bears down on Cam Newton, forcing an early throw for an incompletion. He also gets a big hit on Newton, one of his eight QB hits on the season.
Perhaps the most obvious reason to re-sign Melton is from an affordability standpoint. Defensive tackles are some of the lowest paid players in the league. The 2012 franchise tag number, the average of the five highest paid players at the position, for DTs was $7.96 million. On defense, only safeties make less.
Melton, in the final year of his rookie contract in 2012, made $692,807. To give you some perspective, last season Blake Costanzo made $1 million, Matt Toeaina made $1.38 million and Jason Campbell made $3.5 million.
Melton will be just 27 years old when next season starts, so he's just about to enter his prime. A four-year contract for roughly $20-$25 million in the front half of the deal would make sense for the future of Chicago's defense.
Melton should be rewarded for his play. He should be the cornerstone of the defense in as much as Jay Cutler is the cornerstone of the offense. Melton's career is on the upswing. The time has come for Emery to reward him for that future production.
Brett Solesky has worked in TV, newspapers and, for the last seven years, in radio. He also co-hosts the best Chicago Bears podcast on the Web, Bear Report Radio, which appears on BearReport.com and his blog MidwayIllustrated.com.