Henry Melton has gone from fourth-round draft pick to a Pro Bowler in his fourth NFL season. The defensive tackle who was headed toward unrestricted free agency March 12th will be sticking around for at least another season, after the Bears beat Monday's deadline and placed their franchise tag on him.
"Henry has been a good player for us and we are using the franchise tag so his development continues as a Bear," general manager Phil Emery said in a statement Friday night. "We will continue conversations with Henry to work toward a multi-year agreement."
Melton, currently on vacation, took to Twitter moments before, announcing: "Good to be a Bear for another year, hopefully we can get a long-term deal done soon! #BearDown #franchisetag"
The key will be completing a long-term extension to spread out what would be an $8.45 million cap hit, the average of the top five highest-paid players at his position. Staying at that number would eat up most of the team's salary cap space.
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The Bears reached terms on a multi-year deal with Matt Forte after using the same procedure on the running back, who was not as happy as Melton apparently is by the boost from the $545,000 he made in 2012 in the final year of his rookie deal. Remaining at $8.45 million wold make Melton the highest-paid Bear for 2013 via the cap number, trailing only Julius Peppers, Jay Cutler, and Brandon Marshall.
Emery and lead contract negotiator Cliff Stein are expected to seek restructured deals for Peppers, Charles Tillman, and others to create more cap space, while making decisions on the futures of Kellen Davis and Devin Hester, among others. The combined cap hits of those two players approaches $7 million for next season.
Melton finished third in the league among defensive tackles with six sacks this past season, and his 13 the past two years trails only Cincinnati's Geno Atkins (20). He's grown into the ideal player at the under tackle position in the Bears' defensive scheme, which new coordinator Mel Tucker will carry over from what the departed Rod Marinelli ran.