Representatives for Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton hadn’t heard from the team as of Friday afternoon, according to an NFL source, but they anticipate the club applying the franchise tag before Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline.
General manager Phil Emery declined to divulge any information recently about how the team plans to proceed with Melton, per the GM's typical custom regarding contract matters.
The tag secures the services of the player for at least the next season and comes with a guaranteed 2013 salary of $8.45 million for defensive tackles, according to a memo from the NFL and NFLPA obtained by NFL Network.
"We'll be talking to Henry, and when we come to a conclusion, everybody will know," Emery said last month at the NFL combine.
By tagging Melton, the Bears would buy time to work out a long-term deal, similar to the way the club tagged Matt Forte prior to signing the running back to a four-year deal in July 2012. The fact the Bears haven't yet tagged Melton could be seen as a positive sign, as it demonstrates that dialogue remains ongoing.
With the new salary cap for the 2013 season now officially set at $123 million, the Bears will operate with approximately $12 million in cap space at the start of the new league year. Minus restructuring contracts for some of the big-money players, by tagging Melton the Bears would use a large portion of their cap space. That's not even taking into account the cap room the Bears would need to sign their rookie class or what it would take to bring back some of their own free agents, such as linebacker Brian Urlacher and guard Lance Louis.
So if the Bears place the franchise tag on Melton, but don't create cap space by restructuring some contracts, they could go into free agency on March 12 somewhat handicapped in terms of potential acquisitions.
Would they let Melton test the market? That's unlikely since Melton is a young, ascending player coming off his best season, in which he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. By exposing Melton to the market, the Bears know his asking price could rise significantly.
Last season Melton tied for third among defensive tackles with six sacks, and he forced two fumbles. His position is also one of the key cogs in the club's scheme.
Over the past two seasons Melton notched 13 sacks, which ranks as the second-most among defensive tackles during that span.
But it's clear the Bears have at least explored contingency plans for potential Melton replacements, such as Tampa Bay free agent Roy Miller, who reportedly has cut off contract talks with the Buccaneers. Miller, 25, is a year younger than Melton. But he's also more of a two-down run defender, while Melton possesses more versatility as a pass-rusher who is also adequate against the run.
So while the Bears aren't exactly cap-challenged, the franchise designation for Melton would definitely make free agency more difficult for the club, unless it creates cap space in other ways such as a restructured deal for defensive end Julius Peppers ($16.383 million cap charge in 2013) or a new contract for cornerback Charles Tillman ($8 million), who is set to enter the final year of his deal.
"Every player's kind of got a piece of the pie, and how you divide that up is a very interesting and creative process, and allows a lot of big-picture thinking," said Emery in explaining the salary cap last month at the combine. "So we'll take what we have and we'll work through it."