The Chicago Bears faced a major challenge in Week 3 last season after Henry Melton was lost for the campaign with a torn ACL. Coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2012, Melton was again expected to be the heart of Chicago's defense, providing consistent one-gap pressure as the club's under tackle.
Losing Melton was a big blow but not as big as most expected, due mainly to the emergence of Nate Collins as a viable 3-technique defensive tackle. Collins – who initially earned a roster spot in 2012 after winning a five-man competition in training camp – picked up where Melton left off and had just earned his first full career sack in Week 5. Unfortunately for Collins, an ACL injury later in that contest finished his year also.
Collins tested free agency during the 2013 offseason but found no viable suitors and eventually returned to Chicago for a veteran-minimum, one-year "prove it" deal. He'll again become a free agent on March 11. We weigh the pros and cons of re-signing the four-year veteran.
Collins is a disruptive, athletic defensive lineman. He's strong off the ball, has active hands in the pass rush and an endless motor. He has the quickness to one-gap penetrate as an under tackle, while also possessing enough strength to hold his own as a nose tackle. He's not great in any area of his game but he's solid all-around and, even though he'll be entering his fifth NFL season, the 26-year-old is very much a work in progress with room to improve.
Collins has shown flashes of serious potential and, if he stays healthy and on the field, there's a possibility he could be an NFL starter in the very near future.
Through four years as a pro, Collins has played in just 27 NFL contests. His two starts following Melton's injury last season were the first of his career. He has just 22 career tackles, 1.5 sacks and no forced fumbles. Collins is an unproven, unproductive commodity who is coming off a major knee injury. Needless to say, he's a risk going forward.
Hold ‘em of Fold ‘em?
While Collins may be a risk, he won't be an expensive risk. His doesn't have a sparkling resume and, coming off such a serious injury, there won't be much of a market for him in free agency. Returning to the Bears may be one of only a few options he's afforded this offseason, so he'll again be available at or near the veteran minimum ($730,000 for a five-year veteran in 2014).
The Bears are in a tough spot financially and have very little money to spend under the cap. Even if Julius Peppers is cut, which would clear roughly $10 million in cap space, GM Phil Emery won't be in a position to go hog wild in the open market. He'll be looking for value at every possible position. Collins, who has played well in limited action during his two years in Chicago, is very good value.
Collins has displayed an ability be disruptive against the run and as a pass rusher. At just 26, he still has a lot of upside and at the veteran minimum, he's well worth the risk. Assuming his knee is 100 percent, if Collins gets a full season of regular playing time, he could break out in a big way in 2014, which would go a long way toward rebuilding the Bears' defense.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth 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.