As pointed out by Darin Grantt of Pro Football Talk, the Chicago Bears may be facing a tough decision regarding one of their most promising young defenders this offseason.
Henry Melton, a 26-year-old defensive tackle out of Texas, has quietly become one of the most effective interior pass-rushers in the league, even though most casual fans may not be aware of who he is. Melton has compiled 13 sacks over the last two seasons while also being effective against the run, and he is undoubtedly one of the game's most underrated and up-and-coming young defenders.
Unfortunately for the Bears, they may be forced to part ways with Melton, who is an impending free agent this offseason, due to financial restrictions. In the aforementioned article, Grantt points out that re-signing Melton would probably require the team to tie up nearly one-third of its payroll on four defensive starters next season—the other three being Julius Peppers ($16.4 million), Charles Tillman ($8 million) and Lance Briggs ($7.4 million).
Even if the team used the franchise tag on Melton, which would amount to $8.3 million, the team would still have over $40 million going to only four players next year.
As a result, Melton could be hitting the open market this offseason, and if he does, the Patriots should be ready to pounce.
In terms of importance this offseason, figuring out what to do with Wes Welker should be the Patriots' No. 1 priority, but the team must decide quickly in order to ensure that the opportunity to pursue other free agents, like Melton, does not pass them by.
The team must also decide whether or not to bring back Aqib Talib and/or Sebastian Vollmer next season as well, but with $18.6 million available in cap space this offseason, the team has plenty of financial flexibility.
While other free agents like Ed Reed and Charles Woodson seem like the first two guys that the Patriots should pursue due to the team's perennially subpar defensive backfield, there is no doubt that the team could use a little more help up front as well.
Although Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich stepped up and inspired some hope for the team's pass-rushing unit last season, the team still got very little production from their interior lineman. Of the team's 37 total sacks in 2012, 21 of them came from Jones, Ninkovich and two linebackers, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower.
It is true that the Patriots already have arguably the best defensive tackle in the game in Vince Wilfork, and while he did produce a very respectable three sacks in 2012, he is still better suited to play the nose. The team could certainly use another guy that would be able to collapse the pocket from the inside while Wilfork continues to gobble up opposing offensive linemen.
Plus, with Wilfork being 31 years old and continuing to take serious abuse at such a physical position, the team may want to think about investing in another stud defensive lineman for the future.
In truth, re-signing Welker, Talib and Vollmer and then still being able to sign a free agent like Melton, who will command top dollar, is an absolute impossibility. The previously mentioned $18.6 million in cap space will simply not allow them to do so.
But if the team were willing to let two of their three impending free agents leave—Welker and Vollmer would make the most sense—then they could still re-sign one of them and maintain the ability to pursue Melton.
Of course, the idea of letting Wes Welker, one of the most beloved players in team history, leave as a a free agent would be a tough pill to swallow for most Patriots fans, but there is no doubt that the offense would be able to absorb the loss of Welker much better than the defense would be able to survive the departure of Talib.
As far as Vollmer goes, although he has been one of the better right tackles in the game over the last couple of seasons, his injury history as well as the money that he will ask for make the idea of re-signing him a bit less desirable. Plus, it is always much easier to find a starting right tackle than a true No. 1 cornerback, period.
Bringing in Melton and re-signing Talib would have an immensely beneficial impact on the defense, both for the short and long term. Melton would help solidify the defensive line for years to come, and Talib would give the team its first true cover-corner since the days of Ty Law.
As a result, a unit that has been considered the team's only true weakness over the past couple of seasons would suddenly become a strength, giving the the league's most lethal and explosive offense a valiant companion on the other side of the ball.
Of course, the Bears still have the option of bringing Melton back and this entire article could be rendered completely moot. But, if Melton does hit the open market this offseason, here's to hoping that Belichick and Co. give some real consideration to the idea of bringing the young defensive stud to Foxborough.