According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, an MRI confirmed that the 26-year-old Melton tore his anterior cruciate ligament while pass-rushing against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night. He will miss the rest of the 2013 season, which still consists of 13 games and any possible postseason run for the unbeaten Bears.
A first-time Pro Bowler after recording six sacks in 2012, Melton will certainly be missed on a Bears defensive line that has been the foundation of the team's defense for so many years. Without much doubt, he had developed into Chicago's best interior pass-rusher.
Linebacker Lance Briggs shared his thoughts on the news with Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
“You can’t replace a Henry Melton,” Briggs said. "He is an elite D-lineman. He will be missed."
Any effort to mask the loss of Melton will start with Nate Collins, a fourth-year player who is Chicago's primary backup at the 3-technique. Over 12 career games with the Bears since 2012, Collins has 18 tackles and one pass defensed.
Rich Campbell of the Tribune reports that Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has liked Collins' play through two weeks.
Nate is an active player. He plays hard in the running game. He’s stout. Great pad level and great energy in the passing game. He’s active in the rush, he stays alive and he’s relentless in the rush.
PFF has actually considered Collins a more efficient pass-rusher than Melton through three games in 2013. Given 89 snaps, including 54 in pass-rushing situations, Collins has posted three quarterback hurries and a hit.
When he went down, Melton had provided just two hurries over 125 snaps (74 rushing the passer).
Inserting Collins as the 3-technique would provide the natural advantage of keeping Stephen Paea, who has been arguably the Bears' best defensive lineman in 2013, at his more natural nose tackle position.
Both players have the ability to handle each role, but Collins is a little smaller and quicker, making him a better fit as a starter at the 3-technique.
Behind Collins, the Bears have undrafted free agent Zach Minter, who impressed in August but hasn't been active in a game during the regular season.
With the depth along the interior of the defensive line shaky even before Melton's injury, it can be presumed that Bears general manager Phil Emery is assessing other options as well.
Chicago currently has Aston Whiteside as the lone defensive lineman on the team's eight-man practice squad. While Whiteside is a 257-pound defensive end, he could receive a call-up to bolster the numbers.
Keep in mind, the Bears haven't been shy about sliding defensive end Corey Wootton inside—especially during obvious pass-rushing situations. Chicago could increase Wootton's volume of snaps on the interior and hope Shea McClellin and Whiteside can handle defensive end opposite Julius Peppers.
Emery could also look to the free-agent market to help recreate the depth. Among the available defensive tackles are former Bears castoffs Amobi Okoye, Tommie Harris, Antonio Garay and Matt Toeaina. Familiarity with the club could help one of the four in returning to Chicago.
Richard Seymour is also a free agent, but Biggs reports that the Bears have already ruled out that option:
Other available names include Corey Williams, Marvin Austin, Kyle Love and Ron Brace. The Bears will likely work out a player or two Tuesday, when most NFL teams update personnel boards with typically under-the-radar workouts.
Chicago's might be worth monitoring this week.
Regardless of any move made, the Bears will still have a difficult time replacing one of their most valuable defensive players.
A quick and explosive interior presence, Melton helped collapse the pocket from the inside for Chicago's primarily Cover 2 defense.
The Bears will count on Collins, a promising young player who has played well in 2013, to transition from top backup to starter. Any coming acquisition would likely be for depth reasons only, as there simply aren't many impact interior players available in late September.