An unofficial NFL clock begins ticking Monday for the Bears and defensive tackle Henry Melton. More than for just the Bears, in fact.
Feb. 18 marks the first day when a team can place its franchise tag on a player. The Bears have been expected to tag Melton as they continue working toward a longer-term deal for a centerpiece of their defense.
Of perhaps only slightly less interest to the Bears may be what other teams do with their tags. Denver is expected to tag Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady and Cincinnati to do the same with tackle Andre Smith. Tackle was on the Bears’ wish list last offseason and tags have a way of adjusting the supply side of the market.
The Bears will not necessarily make any Melton move immediately. Indeed, a quick pull of the tag trigger could signal a harsh negotiating stance in a situation where that is anything but the goal.
They had their franchise tag in play last year after contract efforts with running back Matt Forte stalled. The tag period opened on Feb. 20 and ran through Mar. 5. The tag wasn’t placed on Forte until Mar. 2.
The organization had made it clear that it was not going to let Forte hit the open market and that GM Phil Emery regarded the tag, despite its unpopularity with players, as a negotiated part of the collective bargaining agreement. Nothing wrong with using it.
The Bears have from Monday until Mar. 4 to apply their franchise tag to a player. The step does not mean that the tag price will be the player’s pay for 2013, but it buys time to work out a longer-term deal without other teams being able to make runs at their player without the protection of right to match any offer or receive two No. 1 picks as compensation.
Forte and the Bears did not get his four-year contract finalized until mid-July.
The Melton question
Melton’s value to the defense has been established: 13 sacks over the past two seasons, an emerging force inside as the “three-technique” in the Lovie Smith/Rod Marinelli scheme.
The Melton assessment from ProFootballFocus.com:
Chicago Bears: Henry Melton, DT
Melton has been vocal about wanting to stay in Chicago, and the Bears certainly would like to keep the 26-year-old Pro Bowler around on an aging defense. His +15.8 grade was tied for seventh among defensive tackles, while his 7.7 Pass Rushing Productivity on over 300 pass rush snaps was fifth. And no one at his position had a higher mark than his 11.6 Run Stop Percentage this season.
Incoming defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and head coach Marc Trestman said last week that the plan was continue operating a one-gap defense similar to Smith’s. That requires a force at three-technique.
But how indispensable the new staff regards Melton as was not spelled out. The organization traded up in the second round two drafts ago for defensive tackle Stephen Paea, not to be a nose tackle, but to be a penetrating defensive lineman.
Paea was not Melton last season. He played 56.6 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps, compared to Melton’s 57.6 percent, generally coming out on passing downs and finishing with 2.5 sacks to Melton’s six, and eight quarterback pressures to Melton’s 24.
But before 2011, Melton wasn’t Melton, for that matter, either.
Whether the new staff views Paea or Nate Collins, who only played in nine games, or the combination as the equal of Melton isn’t likely. Then again, whether the organization will be willing to pay Tommie Harris money to Melton could start to play out and become apparent on Monday.