Chicago Bears coaches, scouts and front office personnel are currently in Indianapolis getting an up close look at the incoming crop of rookies at the NFL Scouting Combine. A position to which they are paying close attention is defensive tackle, where the club could lose its best player, Henry Melton, to unrestricted free agency.
Yet, in order for Bears brass to prioritize the position in free agency and the draft, they must make a decision regarding one of their own: Nate Collins.
Collins came into the league in 2010 as an undrafted free agent, spending his first two season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was signed by Chicago last offseason and was part of a five-man camp competition for the fourth and final defensive tackle spot on the roster.
Collins won that competition going away, yet he was suspended the first game of the campaign for violating the league's substance abuse policy and then spent the next five weeks as an active scratch. After Amobi Okoye struggled backing up Melton, Chicago's coaches gave Collins a shot.
He played well out of the gates and was a fixture in the defensive line rotation from Weeks 8-14. Collins didn't pick up any sacks but, according to Pro Football Focus, his overall grade was second highest on the team in 2012, behind only Melton. Playing just 247 snaps, he racked up nine quarterback hurries and seven run stops.
DT Nate Collins
Don McPeak/USA TODAY Sports
Yet Collins tapered off late in the year, playing just 20 total snaps in Weeks 15 and 16, and then was a healthy scratch in the season finale.
Collins is one of 18 Bears players set to hit the open market, yet he's the only restricted free agent. This means, if the Bears choose to tender him a contract offer, they will then be able to match any offer Collins may receive in free agency.
There are three different tiers for RFAs tenders. Basically, the more you offer the player for his one-year deal, the better compensation you'll receive from the other NFL team that signs him for more money. Here are the tiers for 2013:
First-round tender - $2.879 million
Second-round tender - $2.023 million
Right-of-first-refusal tender - $1.323
If the Bears choose to tender Collins, he'll almost assuredly receive the lowest offer, meaning he'll cost just $1.323 million in 2013. That's a relatively cheap price for a player that flashed a lot of potential last season.
Collins is a strong player who is stout enough to play nose tackle yet quick enough to play 3-technique on passing downs. His versatility gives him added value. Considering his price tag, there's no reason not to bring him back to camp this year to see if he can again earn a spot on the final 53-man roster.
If another team wants to offer Collins a big chunk of change in free agency, Chicago will likely have to let him walk, as there are too many other more-pressing personnel needs for a team with roughly $11 million in cap space.
But if that offer doesn't come, then Collins has earned another invite to Bourbonnais. If he builds on his improvement next year, he'll be a valuable member of the defensive tackle rotation.
That said, considering the uncertainty surrounding Henry Melton, the Bears had better have a backup plan in place in case he leaves via free agency. That means looking beyond Collins at some of the other free agent and rookie defensive tackles. This is a position that cannot be ignored over the next two months. Collins will help add depth but more moves need to be made.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. 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.