The Chicago Bears can play tag with Henry Melton beginning on Monday, a measure that would ensure the defensive tackle remains in place for 2013, Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune reports.
NFL teams have from Monday through March 4, a 15-day window, to apply the franchise tag in advance of free agency and the start of the new league year on March 12. Barring a multi-year contract for Melton, it seems like a good bet general manager Phil Emery will elect to use the franchise tag for the second consecutive year after applying it to running back Matt Forte in 2012. Doing so could lock up nearly one-third of the team’s salary cap in four defensive stars, though.
The goal with Forte was to sign him to a long-term contract and the sides hammered that out with a four-year deal before the July deadline. Emery could choose a similar path with Melton, who would be guaranteed $8.3 million if he is tagged and he signs the one-year tender.
Melton had a career-high seven sacks in 2011 and followed up with six in 2012 but he was a much more complete player this past season and made the Pro Bowl for the first time. He defended the run better and finished with 33 tackles, a team-high 24 quarterback pressures, five tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker unveiled his vision on Thursday for an “attacking, penetrating front” while maintaining the Cover Two scheme the Bears used the previous nine seasons under Lovie Smith. That defense will not work effectively without a disruptive three-technique, the type of player the 26-year-old Melton has developed into since being selected as a defensive end in the fourth round in 2009.
The Bears declined to talk about any personnel goals on Thursday and Emery could be waiting to connect with Melton’s agent Jordan Woy at the NFL Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis. Late in the season, Melton characterized contract talks between the parties as “back and forth.” He told the Tribune he believes he is the top interior 4-3 lineman in the league.
“We're still playing the 4-3 … there is not another better D-tackle in the league than myself," Melton said. "I feel like that."
The top of the pay scale for defensive tackles reaches $10 million annually. It's doubtful Melton, who earned $565,000 in 2012, can approach that unless he reaches the free market and finds multiple bidders. In Forte’s contract, the Bears guaranteed him $17.1 million, nearly identical to what he would have received playing under the franchise tag for two seasons. It could be the Bears ultimately take a similar strategy with Melton in long-term talks but they’ll have to secure him with the tag first.
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