Bears fortunes – literal and figurative – took a significant turn on Monday when Henry Melton and the Bears failed to agree on a long-term contract, leaving the Pro Bowl defensive tackle to play the 2013 season for the guaranteed $8.45 million under the terms of the franchise tag the team elected to place on Melton this offseason.
The situation keeps one of the centerpieces of their defense in place. But it also creates an interesting looming dilemma for 2014.
The dilemma is not necessarily Melton, who has shaken off a rookie season (2009) lost to IR and posted 15.5 sacks over his last 37 games. The tag assures Melton, who replaced Tommie Harris at the vital three-technique/under-tackle position in the Bears’ 4-3 scheme, will again be playing for a contract.
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The dilemma can be if Melton produces a third straight season as one of the top performers at a premier position. The Bears are permitted to use a franchise tag a second time on a player but they also face a potential decision on whether the tag goes on Melton or quarterback Jay Cutler, currently their only starter-grade option at one of the few positions of greater import than Melton’s.
Finding the money for either or both will be a true franchise decision.
But for the time being, the Bears currently go to training camp with arguably two things: their best starting-tackle tandem since Harris and Tank Johnson were at their peaks in 2005-2006, and the best overall tackle depth in any recent season.
The Bears traded up in the second round of the 2011 draft for Oregon tackle Stephen Paea, who proceeded to have injury issues from training camp on, and started zero games.
Paea then, like Melton, emerged in his second season, winning the starting nose-tackle job from Matt Toeaina in week two and had at least one sack, tackle for loss or quarterback pressure in 11 of his 15 games. Paea finished the season with 30 tackles, eight pressures and 2.5 sacks at a position (nose) where impact individual plays are difficult because of creating double-teams.
As important as the starters, however, is the rotation and the Bears added high-level depth this offseason. In addition to re-signing Nate Collins, one of only three Bears defensive linemen (Israel Idonije, Julius Peppers) to grade out with positives in every area of evaluation, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
They also secured former first-rounder (No. 7-overall) Sedrick Ellis after the New Orleans Saints elected not to bring him back. The Bears thought enough of Ellis to pony up $1 million for one season, including a $285,000 signing bonus.
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Ellis and Collins will be in an intense competition with Corvey Irvin, a former third-round pick of the Carolina Panthers who has been with four different teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars and current defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
The Bears have kept five defensive tackles and the importance of the position in a defense moving on from Brian Urlacher will create opportunities.
The defense ranked eighth in rushing yardage per game, as well as fifth in total yards and third in points allowed. That always starts up front and builds from the football out, meaning with the defensive tackles.
McMichael-Perry. Washington-Traylor. Harris-Johnson. When the Bears have had an elite defense, their No. 1 tackle tandem has been dominant inside, with pressure in the quarterback’s face and run defense that was forcing those quarterbacks into must-throw situations.
Melton made an $8-million point last season and Paea played well enough to be on the field for nearly 60 percent (602 of 1,021) of opponents’ snaps. Melton is 26 and Paea 25.
While the Bears will continue a rotation approach, the key to the defense projects to be the ability of the Melton-Paea pairing to become dominant, allowing an aging Peppers (34) to work against fewer double teams.