The Chicago Bears sent defensive tackle Henry Melton to the Pro Bowl last season. In just his second season as a full-time DT starter, Melton proved to be one of the most disruptive interior pass rushers in the league, while improving dramatically against the run.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Melton graded as the seventh best defensive tackle in the NFL in 2012. In addition, his Stop Percentage – run stops that count as a "loss" for the offense – was the best at his position. At only 26 years old, Melton has yet to reach his peak. For the Bears, he could serve as the cornerstone of the defensive line for years to come.
Unfortunately for the team, Melton is set to hit free agency on March 12. Defensive tackles of his caliber, with the quickness to one-gap penetrate and the strength to shed blockers against the run, are in high demand in the NFL. If Melton is allowed to test the free-agent waters, he'll earn a fat, multi-year deal.
Publicly, Melton has stated his desire to return to Chicago but, as we all know, money talks. If the Bears aren't willing to invest a large chunk of the salary cap on him for the next four to five seasons, Melton will bolt. Which is why the club may have to place the franchise tag on him, projected at roughly $8.3 million, in 2013. It will be money well spent if the two sides can't come to a long-term agreement.
Beyond Melton, the Bears are in good shape at nose tackle, with second-year player Stephen Paea emerging last year as a consistent presence on the inside. Nate Collins, who showed flashes of potential in 2012, is a restricted free agent. He'll likely return on a short-term deal to compete for a spot as the backup nose tackle.
Beyond those three, the cupboard is dry. Amobi Okoye and Matt Toeaina, two underperformers last year, will not be returning, meaning Chicago GM Phil Emery will need to look toward free agency, and possibly the draft, to find depth at DT. Let's break down the available talent set to hit the open market (unrestricted free agents only).
Desmond Bryant (6-6, 311), Oakland Raiders, Age: 27
Bryant rated one spot ahead of Melton on PFF's rankings last year, grading slightly better against both the pass and run. He had more than twice as many QB hits and four less hurries than Melton. He is a very solid, one-gap penetrator that can collapse the pocket in the quarterback's face. He has only started 18 games in his four-year career, so he's working on relatively fresh legs. Pairing Bryant and Melton would give Chicago the most dangerous pass-rushing DT duo in the league.
Randy Starks (6-3, 305), Miami Dolphins, Age: 29
Starks is a nine-year veteran who has started all but one game for the Dolphins the past four years, accumulating 19.0 sacks, as well as three interceptions, over that span. He's a talented interior pass rusher who was a Pro Bowl alternate last year – his second trip to Hawaii the past three seasons. He would provide experience, leadership and production in Chicago.
Jason Jones (6-5, 276), Seattle Seahawks, Age: 27
Jones served as a rotational player for Seattle last year but still racked up 3.0 sacks. In fact, he's had between 3.0-5.0 sacks in each of his five NFL seasons, which shows his consistency. He's injury prone, never once playing in 16 games during his career, and doesn't offer much against the run. But as a nickel pass rusher, he would have a lot of value for the Bears. And since he didn't start a game last year, he'd come relatively cheap.
Sammie Hill (6-4, 329), Detroit Lions, Age: 26
The Lions have arguably the most talent in the league at defensive tackle, which is why Hill has started just six games the past three years. Yet on most other NFL teams, Hill could be a starter. He has the size to clog holes against the run and he's also a very accomplished pass rusher. In a rotational role last season, he racked up 17 QB hurries, 15th best at the position. Hill will come at a discount and would fit a crucial role in Chicago.
Glenn Dorsey (6-1, 297), Kansas City Chiefs, Age: 27
Dorsey is a 4-3 defensive tackle who has been miscast in a 3-4 in Kansas City. Playing out of place, Dorsey has not lived up to his billing as the former fifth overall pick in 2008. He has just 4.0 sacks in five seasons. Additionally, he missed all but four games in 2012 with calf injuries. Yet Dorsey is still young enough to resurrect his career in a 4-3 system. He has learned how to play the run in the Chiefs' 3-4, so if he can regain his one-gap form as a pass rusher, he'll be an absolute bargain for the Bears.
Sedrick Ellis (6-1, 307), New Orleans Saints, Age: 27
Ellis is another former Top 10 overall pick (seventh, 2008) who has never lived up to his potential. He earned 12.0 sacks his first three seasons but, despite starting 31 of 32 regular season games, has just 0.5 sacks the last two years combined. As such, he'll be another discounted player on the open market. Like Dorsey, Ellis still has time to turn around his career. At the right price, he's worth the risk.
Derek Landri (6-2, 290), Philadelphia Eagles, Age: 29
Landri is the prototypical journeyman defensive tackle. He fits best as a rotational player and uses his experience and savvy to pressure the quarterback. He struggled in Philadelphia last year, but honestly, what Eagles player didn't? Landri is not a great player but, at a veteran minimum salary, the Bears could do much worse.
SenDerrick Marks (6-2, 294), Tennessee Titans, Age: 25
Marks hasn't been terribly effective during his 23 starts the past two years, yet he's still a young, developing player. He's very athletic but must get stronger at the point of attack. He's a decent player with a high ceiling and will come at a bargain. He's worth the gamble.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.