- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton's recovery from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament has progressed to the point where Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery said on Thursday the club's preference is to re-sign Melton who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on March 11.
"We do want to bring back Henry and we'll work through that process," Emery said at the NFL combine. "He's made progress. He's made positive progress."
Slapped with the franchise tag by the Bears last season ($8,454,725) after posting 33 tackles and six sacks in 2012, Melton started just three games before landing on injured reserve on Sept. 27 -- Melton has 15.5 sacks in 48 career games.
After undergoing surgery and sitting out the final three months of the regular season, Melton has apparently dedicated himself to strengthening his injured left knee over the past couple of months.
"He's in every day early," Bears head coach Marc Trestman said. "He's got to drive in from downtown. If you see him, you'll see that he has been training and he has been working. He's very focused. You'll see he dropped some weight. He looks very good physically right now. Obviously he's in there working the knee, but he's been on time, he's working hard with [Bears head athletic trainer] Chris [Hanks].
"As I said, I spoke with him yesterday for 30-45 minutes and he's committed to getting himself back and he's got work to do to get there, but he's in a very good place right now and we all understand the situation and we'll see where it goes."
The Bears' ability to retain Melton is expected to boil down to money. Considered one of the top defensive tackles scheduled to reach free agency, there is no way of knowing how much other teams are prepared to offer Melton when the new league year begins on March 11.
The Bears find themselves in the same situation with the other unrestricted free agents the organization wants to return, namely quarterback Josh McCown, cornerback Charles Tillman and center Roberto Garza.
While the Bears cannot officially re-sign McCown until the beginning of free agency, the team does hold exclusive negotiating rights with the veteran quarterback and can agree in principle to a new deal. McCown posted the third-highest quarterback rating (109.0) when he completed 149 of 224 passing attempts for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception in eight appearances (five starts).
"I talk to Josh pretty much weekly, or bi-weekly, I've talked to him two or three times anyways and I've texted with him. He's in the loop into what's going on. I've just called him on a personal level just to catch up with him and see how he sees the league and what's going on," Trestman said. "We just like to talk football. He knows exactly where he stands with us. I think that he's going to take his time, see where things are at, when he's ready to say ‘I want to come back,' I know Phil's going to do everything he can and we're going to do everything can to make sure he is."
Tillman, the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award winner and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, has publicly stated on multiple occasions that his decision to return to Chicago for a 12th season will be determined by the kinds of contract offers he receives.
Meantime, Garza, a 13-year NFL veteran center/guard, will likely have to accept a one-year, veteran-minimum contract with a relatively low signing bonus to stay with the Bears. However, Garza is a respected team captain and the leader of the team's revamped offensive line that started all 16 games together.
"It's a tough business," Trestman said. "We want Roberto back. He knows we want him back. We believe he should finish his career with the Bears. He does so much in our community. He's such a leader in our locker room. He knows how we feel about him. We just need to let this thing evolve and hopefully it's going to work out best, No. 1 for Roberto, because that's No. 1. And from his standpoint, and it should be, he deserves that respect. And hopefully it will work out for the Bears as well. We certainly want to see him back."
Emery also praised free-agent veteran middle linebacker D.J. Williams who battled injuries for much of last season. Emery sounded as if the door is still open for Williams to return, and if he does, Williams is expected to compete with Shea McClellin, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene for a starting spot.
"Saw a good football player [in Williams]," Emery said. "Saw a guy that has legitimately very good burst. Saw a player that has good instincts, gets around the ball and plays with a relentless style. We were not displeased with his effort. We were very pleased with where he was going and how he was progressing. Obviously, he had some injuries in camp, he had to get his feet back under him and once he did he started producing at a high level."
Other notable unrestricted free agents for the Bears include: defensive lineman Corey Wootton, defensive tackle Nate Collins, return man Devin Hester, safety Craig Steltz, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff and cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Kelvin Hayden.