If the Bears bring Melton back, they'll likely be overpaying a flawed player who is coming off of a major injury. If they don't, the other options may not be more appealing.
Melton is a talented player, an assessment Bears general manager Phil Emery seemed to agree with a year ago when he used the franchise tag on the defensive tackle. He's one of the premier interior pass-rushers in the league, but determining his value became tricky when he tore his ACL in the third game of the 2013 season.
As a former collegiate running back, Melton's trademark in the NFL became his rare athleticism. It's now hard to project what he will be in the future after a major knee injury. We've seen both sides of the spectrum in recent years. On one hand, Adrian Peterson has shown no ill effects from his torn ACL, while Derrick Rose has only played in eight games in nearly two years since tearing his. It's impossible to project Melton's recovery. Everybody is different.
In an ideal world, Melton would sign an incentive-based, short-term deal that would benefit both teams. Given the fact that he brings a premier skill set and is young, he may not have to take such an offer once he hits the open market.
As they prepare to hit unrestricted free agency, Melton's camp will likely try to get as much guaranteed money as possible. With teams so desperate for pass rush, he could become one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the league.
Would the Bears consider giving him such a deal? Probably not.
As good as Melton is, he isn't in the class of Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy. Melton is a very good pass-rusher, but he doesn't always hold his ground in the run game. He can get into the backfield and tackle once he's there, but he struggles when teams run directly at him.
In the screen shot below, you see Melton pushed back into the second level on a power run by the Bengals. The Bears were able to hide this flaw when Melton played next to a defensive end who was great against the run in Israel Idonije.
Prior to the combine, Emery made it known that he values versatility on his roster. Melton came into the league as a defensive end but didn't come into his own until he moved inside. Could the Bears move him back to defensive end on running downs and inside on passing downs? It seems unlikely that they'd want to pay a premium for a player and then experiment with him.
It's hard to know what to expect from Melton going forward. Not only is he coming off a major knee surgery, but he didn't play well even before he was injured. This is something that shouldn't be forgotten.
Bringing Melton back could also prevent the Bears from adding to other positions. While they have some flexibility with their salary cap, paying Melton a big contract would eat away money that could otherwise be spent on multiple players. They would then be forced to add other positions in the draft, which could take a talented pass-rusher like Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald out of the mix, should he fall.
The Bears may opt to bring back Nate Collins instead. He's also coming off a major knee surgery and isn't nearly the caliber of player Melton is when he's at his best, but he'll come at a fraction of the price.
If the Bears don't bring Melton back, the questions don't get much easier to answer.
The Bears recently brought veteran Jeremiah Ratliff back into the fold, meaning they have two defensive tackles with him and Stephen Paea under contract. Both can play either position inside, and Ratliff could theoretically kick out to the 5-technique.
One problem is that neither is reliable. While it may not be fair to judge Ratliff based on what he brought to the Bears last year, he wasn't nearly the player he was previously. It's hard to know what to expect going forward from a defensive tackle who is in his 30s. Paea has had a hard time staying healthy in his career and hasn't made much of an impact even when he has been on the field.
While both Ratliff and Paea can play the 3-technique, neither is particularly effective there. There are a number of other free agents who could provide interior pass rush, but not to the level that Melton would be able to.
With his pre-draft performances, there's a good chance that Donald doesn't slip to the Bears. While a player like Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman could be worth the 14th pick, he's probably better suited to be a nose tackle, at least during his rookie season while he develops pass-rushing moves.
Drafting a defensive end, such as Missouri's Kony Ealy, and playing him inside on passing downs could also be an option, but they'd be asking him to do something he doesn't have experience doing. He would be best used as an edge defender.
So the Bears face the ultimate dilemma.
Their decision may end up shaping the rest of their offseason. If they bring Melton back, they'll likely be looking elsewhere in the draft and to more cost-effective players through free agency.
If they don't, expect them to spend elsewhere and target his position early in the draft. They could possibly trade up if they feel Donald—or another player they believe can give them immediate help rushing the passer—will go before the 14th pick.
It's rare that one player can have so much impact on a team's plans, but Melton is a special circumstance. There is no easy answer for the Bears. There is significant risk involved in whatever they do, but once they decide, we'll know what risks they're going to take.