Last offseason the Chicago Bears placed the franchise tag on Henry Melton, paying him $8.45 million in 2013. Coming off a Pro Bowl season in which Melton's sack total (6.0) was second only to Geno Atkins amongst NFL defensive tackles, the Bears took a leap of faith with Melton. The club was expecting the 27-year-old to take another step forward, thus justifying his big paycheck and potentially solidifying him as the defense's long-term 3-technique tackle.
Melton started the campaign slow, with nary a sack through the first two-plus contests. Then, in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Melton tore his ACL and was lost for the year. It was a quick, disappointing way to end a season in which much was expected from Melton.
On March 11, Melton will again become a free agent. The Bears want him to return but it must be a contract that makes sense for both sides. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of re-signing Melton, and what it might take to get the deal done.
In 2011 and 2012, Melton combined for 13.0 sacks and was one of the most disruptive interior defenders in the league. A former defensive end and running back at Texas, Melton's blend of quickness and power allowed him to effectively pierce gaps, both against the run and as a pass rusher. His dominance during that stretch had fans and analysts alike applauding his tag designation, as the consensus believed he was too good to let go.
When Melton is on, he can take over games. Collapsing the pocket in a quarterback's face almost always de-rails an opposing team's passing attack and Melton excelled in that area. If he returns from his injury as that same player, he'll easily be worth a large contract. A good, healthy Melton is the type of player around whom a team can build its defense.
The problem with Melton is that we have no idea how he'll perform after a crucial knee injury. There's a chance the ACL tear has sapped him of his ability to explode off the line of scrimmage. We all remember the decline of Tommie Harris due to numerous leg injuries. If Melton struggles in his recovery, it's going to be hard to justify signing him to a hefty, long-term deal.
Melton also was arrested a few days before Christmas after a drunken bar fight, one in which he ended up the loser. The incident prompted these comments from GM Phil Emery a few weeks later:
"Henry … he has got to fully dedicate himself to rehab," said Emery. "He has to fully dedicate his mind and his focus to football, which is extremely important. Now let's focus in on getting healthy, and obviously he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure that he's focused in on football and having a passion for football."
Hold ‘em or Fold ‘em?
Henry's situation is a bit more complicated than just a ‘yea' or ‘nay' vote. Contract dollars will play a huge part in whether he returns. The Bears have very little cap space and cannot, at the moment, afford to pay Melton his asking price. Emery must cut a few contracts – we're looking at you Julius Peppers – before he can even begin negotiations with Melton's agent, Jordon Woy.
Additionally, it appears the Bears will be asking Melton to take a significant pay cut. He earned $8.45 million last year, yet played just two and half games, with five total tackles and no sacks – something Emery addressed a month ago.
"I have sat down and talked to him, there was a reason we franchise-tagged him. There was a reason for that investment," Emery said. "The under-tackle position in the scheme that we're in is the engine that drives the defense. So he knows, and that has been related to him that we signed you for a reason."
Reading between the lines, the message to Melton was: You did not live up to the exorbitant amount we paid you. You owe us.
Melton had a chance to discuss the situation with reporters in the Halas Hall locker room the day after the season ended but chose not to talk. So it's still unclear how that message was received.
Exacerbating the issue will be the interest other teams show in Melton once free agency begins. Two teams in particular may vie for his services: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys. The Bucs just hired Lovie Smith as their head coach, with whom Melton had a very good relationship. And playing with the Cowboys would put Melton back in his home state and reunite him with defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who developed Melton into the player he is today.
The Bears won't last long in a bidding war if those two teams up the ante. Emery knows that, which is why he made it a point to talk with Melton before he left Halas Hall.
So in essence, it's up to Melton whether or not he returns to Chicago. Considering his potential payday, the Bears might be better off parting ways and looking for Melton's replacement in the upcoming draft.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.