The Chicago Bears are not in a good financial spot heading into free agency. The club has very little money to spend under the cap and, even if they cut Julius Peppers, GM Phil Emery will have to be economical in free agency.
As such, a number of the team's 23 current free agents will be cap casualties, as the club just doesn't have the requisite money to re-sign everyone, particularly the top-tier players.
After the defense finished last in the league in 2013 against the run and in total sacks, Emery will be looking to address the defensive line this offseason. He'll likely add at least one free agent and a draft pick, but two current players set to hit free agency warrant new contracts: Henry Melton and Corey Wootton.
Both players will garner interest from other NFL teams once the 2014 season begins at 3 p.m. on March 11 and neither will come cheap. As a result, it's unlikely the Bears will be able to retain both defensive linemen. Emery may be backed into a corner where he has to choose one or the other.
That being the case, let's make a case for each player before giving our pick as to whether Melton or Wootton should be on the team next season.
The Case for Melton
Melton is a 27-year-old Pro Bowl defensive tackle who plays arguably the most important position, the 3-technique, on Chicago's defense. His 13.0 sacks in 2011 and 2012 combined were second most amongst NFL defensive tackles, behind only Cincinnati's Geno Atkins. During that two-year stretch, Melton was one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen in the league. When he's playing at his best, Melton is the catalyst that makes the defense run, making him too valuable to let walk.
The Case for Wootton
Wootton posted 7.0 sacks in 2012 after surpassing Israel Idonije as the club's starting defensive end. He was considered a breakout candidate last year but injuries forced him to move to defensive tackle, where he started 10 games. The positional instability resulted in just 3.0 sacks for Wootton in 2013.
Yet his stat line doesn't tell the whole story, as he was easily the most consistent defensive lineman on the team. Whether on the edge or inside, Wootton creates pressure as a pass rusher and he can hold his own against the run. At just 26-year-old, he's an extremely versatile defensive lineman who still hasn't reached his ceiling. Re-signing Wootton as a cornerstone defensive lineman would give the Bears a lot of flexibility in both free agency and the draft.
The Decision: Melton
Wootton has the potential to be a special player. He's explosive off the ball and quick around the edge. His strength allows him to stack and shed against the run, whether at tackle or end. Yet he's always an injury risk, which is why Melton is the choice.
The injury bug hit Wootton in college and has followed him throughout his career, playing in just 13 games his first two years in the league. He's been active for every game the past two years but he recently had hip surgery in January immediately following the 2013 campaign. Spending big on Wootton has the potential to backfire in a big way if the hip becomes an issue or if he suffers another catastrophic injury.
Melton is recovering from an ACL tear, so he's a risk as well. If he struggles to regain his previous form, a la Tommie Harris in the late 2000s, then he could potentially drag down the defense. With Melton though, there's no reason to believe he can't recover. He's never before suffered any serious injuries, where as Wootton has had had multiple surgeries on his knees and now the hip.
As far as potential impact, we've seen what Melton can do when healthy. There are only a handful of other defensive tackles in the NFL who can take over a game like Melton. If he returns to full health, he'll again be a dominant force inside, making him well worth a new contract.
Melton cost $8.5 million under the 2013 franchise tag. He played just two-plus contests, so he knows as well as anyone how grossly overpaid he was last year. We're told he wants to return to Chicago, so he'll likely come at a decent discount in 2014. The deal would likely have a lot of health- and performance-related incentives built in, giving Melton motivation to again be a Pro Bowl player.
An ideal scenario has the Bears bringing back both players but if Emery has to choose between the two, Melton is the bigger priority.
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.