Since the Chicago Bears are running low on cap space, personnel decisions are much harder.
One decision is a no-brainer.
The Bears need to bring back defensive tackle Henry Melton. They have about $10.5 million in salary cap space right now, and Melton’s cost under the new franchise tag would be around $8 million.
Hardly. While the move does take the Bears out of the market for any elite free agents, Melton is worth more to Chicago than any other free agent could be. Even if there was a mid-level free agent the Bears wanted to sign, they could restructure Julius Peppers’ contract to create more space.
Melton is worth the Bears franchise tagging him because of his long-term value, his value relative to other defensive tackles, his value relative to other free agents, and continuity.
Melton’s output at defensive tackle in the NFL has been huge, but his potential is even bigger.
Melton was drafted out of Texas, where he started as a running back (he played defensive tackle his last two seasons there). His athleticism is obvious. He uses his speed to bring down the quarterback by bursting through the line or looping behind on a stunt. He has 13 sacks over the last two seasons, while Detroit Lions Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has 12.
Six or seven sacks out of the defensive tackle position is a very impressive number, and Melton’s presence has boosted production from the Bears’ defensive ends. Peppers only produced eight sacks for the Bears in 2010, but his production jumped to 11.0 and 11.5 since Melton became a starter.
Melton is only 26, and he has improved every season. If the Bears want to be a serious contender beyond this year, they won’t let a third-year pro fresh off his first Pro Bowl go elsewhere.
Even if Melton’s potential wasn’t so great, he would still be a steal at $8 million.
Imagine that Melton remains the pass-rusher he is, while also remaining a solid (if not elite) defender against the run. Even without any improvement, he is easily a top-five defensive tackle.
Yet, there are five tackles who will have greater cap hits than him next season. How do they stack up against Melton?
Suh, Haloti Ngata, Tommy Kelly, Gerald McCoy, and Vince Wilfork will all cost over $10 million for their teams next year. In a league that covets sacks above many other stats, none of them brought the quarterback down more than Melton over the last two seasons combined.
So, Melton is a good value at defensive tackle.
But should the Bears invest in a defensive tackle rather than another position?
The Bears have a few positions they need to upgrade: tight end, cornerback and, of course, offensive line. Tight end and nickel cornerback are both positions that can be upgraded relatively cheaply, so they aren’t directly competing with defensive tackle or offensive line.
Rumor has it that a couple of the best free-agent guards, Louis Vasquez or Andy Levitre, each could be had for about $6 million annually (via SBNation). If the Bears restructure Peppers’ contract, that leaves them plenty of space to sign such a guard. They could also acquire one through the draft.
That leaves left tackle as Melton's primary competition for cap space.
J’Marcus Webb has been criticized throughout his career as a Bear, but to be fair, he has improved each season. And he’s only 24. That’s not to say a team that wants to compete for the Super Bowl couldn't do better, but the tackle would have to be high quality to be worth a change.
With Ryan Clady off the market, Jake Long is the most coveted left tackle available. The former No. 1 overall pick was once one of the most dominant offensive linemen in the NFL. Injuries have derailed his past two seasons, making him a significant risk.
Is it worth jettisoning one of your top defensive players for a boom-or-bust lineman? Probably not.
The next best options are Will Beatty and Branden Albert. Both have their own concerns—Beatty has penalty issues, while Albert is subpar in run-blocking. No left tackle is going to be perfect, but any of these three still represent an upgrade over J’Marcus Webb.
When it comes down to it, team continuity makes the franchising Henry Melton a better decision than spending the money on a left tackle.
The Bears are coming off of a 10-6 season. Chicago needs to win now, and their roster has the ability to do so. Adding a few extra pieces through the draft could put them over the top.
With a brand new coaching staff coming in (only some position coaches were retained), it is important for the Bears to keep as much personnel in place to ease the transition. Replacing a team’s starting defensive tackle and signing a new offensive left tackle with question marks could lead to a regression.
The decision for the Bears to apply the franchise tag to Henry Melton is clear-cut. If Chicago doesn’t tag him, it will hopefully be because they signed him to a long-term deal.
That would be fine with him, according to the Chicago Sun-Times:
“Everybody knows that we’ve got a good situation here, and I love the city, and I love the fan base,” Melton said. “I’d like to stay here for a long time.”
Take note, Phil Emery: don’t let him leave.
*All salary cap statistics provided by www.spotrac.com