Could Henry Melton Regain His Dominance Away from Bears Defense?

Zach KruseSenior Analyst IMarch 3, 2014

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 26: Henry Melton #69 of the Chicago Bears celebrates after teammate Chris Harris intercepted a pass in the final minutes as Nick Mangold #74 and Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets walk off of the field at Soldier Field on December 26, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Jets 38-34. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With glaring holes dotting their defensive roster, the Chicago Bears are not in position to let a disruptive defender like defensive tackle Henry Melton leave via free agency.

Last season's 30th-ranked defense in both points and yards allowed is already lacking true difference-makers. Losing Melton would only add to general manager Phil Emery's substantial offseason rebuilding effort.

Like with any negotiation with a pending free agent, however, the possibility exists that Melton won't receive the deal he wants from the Bears and instead will find a new home through the open market, which is now flooded with spending dollars.

Within such a scenario also exists the chance that Melton will regain the dominance he once gave the Bears, but in a different uniform in 2014.

It would be a tough blow for the rebuilding Bears. If he does get to free agency, though, teams in need of help along the defensive line will see a lot of upside in adding Melton.

From 2011 to 2012, the former fourth-round pick emerged as one of the NFL's better interior pass-rushers. His 13.0 sacks over that period—which included seven in 2011 and six in 2012—ranked second among all 4-3 defensive tackles, with only Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals (20.0) registering more.

Sacks can oftentimes be a poor judge of overall disruptive ability. It's a finishing statnothing more, nothing less. However, Melton showed over those two seasons that his game is more than just getting the quarterback on the ground.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Melton tallied 76 total quarterback disruptions in 2011 and 2012 combined. Only Atkins had more. Among Melton's 76 disruptions were 14 quarterback hits and 47 hurries.

He also made 50 stops (a solo tackle that PFF counts as an offensive failure) over the two years and finished first in run stop percentage in 2012.

When a torn ACL sidelined him for 13 games in 2013, the Bears' pressure package all but dried up.

Chicago received just six total sacks from its defensive tackles last season, including two from Corey Wootton—normally a defensive end, but he was shifted inside to compensate for Melton's loss. The position ended up tallying just 69 total disruptions, which ranked last among teams running strictly the 4-3 defense.

Overall, the Bears had just 31 team sacks, including only 21 from the defensive line.

Many factors went into Chicago rushing the passer so poorly in 2013, but losing Melton in Week 3 might have played the biggest role.

How many times last season did a Bears defensive tackle pull off the kind of technique and closing speed you can see from Melton in the video below?

NFL Game Rewind

On this sack of Andrew Luck in Week 1 of 2012, Melton hand-fights the center before rubbing off the inside stunt and overwhelming the quarterback as he steps into the pocket.

Emery, whose primary objective this offseason is to help fix a failing defense, clearly understands how important a player like Melton is to what the Bears want to accomplish on that side of the ball.

"The under-tackle position in the scheme that we're in is the engine that drives the defense," Emery told reporters. "And when he was in the game, even though from a statistical standpoint he wasn't off to a fast start, it was very evident on tape that he was a very important part of the defense."

With Melton in the lineup for the first three weeks, the Bears started 3-0 with 11 takeaways and a top-eight run defense. The unit fell apart shortly after he tore up his knee against the Pittsburgh Steelers, cutting short a season in which Melton was playing on the one-year franchise tag.

Bears Defense: With and Without Henry Melton, 2013
PPGRun Yards/GameTakeaways
Weeks 1-324.788.711
Weeks 4-1731.1178.217
Source: Pro Football Reference

While his opportunity to cash in big on the open market might have been taken away, Melton will find no shortage of suitors should he find himself an unrestricted free agent on March 11.

ACL surgeries aren't the same devastating, career-altering operations they once were. Players nowadays routinely come back as strong and effective as before the surgery.

Melton told Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune (subscription required) that his knee is on track to be 100 percent ahead of OTAs in May. At the latest, his recovery timeline would finish up before the start of training camp in late July.

If teams are comfortable with the progress of his knee, Melton will become very attractive to any defense in need of an athletic, one-gapping defensive tackle. In today's NFL, where interior pressure can cause the biggest problems for the wave of pass-happy offenses, Melton's position and skill set are valuable.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Atkins, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy are the top guns at the position, with all three featuring elite pass-rushing skills and chops against the run. They are paid accordingly.

Melton is in the next tier, in part due to the uncertainty regarding his knee and what it may due to his explosion and quickness. If healthy, the 27-year-old tackle has the upside to once again be one of the top interior disruptors.

The defense-challenged Bears probably can't afford to let a talent like Melton get away. He's a perfect fit for what they do up front and proved when healthy that he's one of the best at providing chaos as a 3-technique in the 4-3.

However, Melton will be just as tempting to teams if he's allowed to hit free agency, where it would take just one cash-rich club to break the bank while betting on him to return to his pre-injury levels. His impact in 2011 and 2012 proves he's capable of harassing offenses with two stable, healthy knees.

The next few weeks might just prove to be a delicate balancing act for Melton and the Bears.