The Chicago Bears' exclusive right to negotiate a contract with free agent defensive tackle Henry Melton expired Saturday once the league’s legal tampering period opened up in advance of Tuesday’s start of free agency, and as expected, several teams have expressed interest, according to an NFL source.
Melton, 27, is coming off surgery to repair his left ACL, and it’s likely the Bears were optimistically expecting somewhat of a soft market for the defensive tackle, who received $8.45 million in 2013 as the club’s franchise player. But early indications are that Melton will generate plenty of interest from several teams. It's worth noting that Melton has familiarity with Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith and Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli (even though the Cowboys likely aren't an option considering they are barely under the salary cap at this point). It's also important to mention that calls made by clubs once the negotiation window opens up typically result only in preliminary talks, as the action isn’t expected to seriously heat up until Sunday and Monday.
Since the end of the regular season, Melton and the Bears have engaged in some positive talks. But after the week of the NFL combine, the defensive tackle’s representatives fully expected their client to test the market based on further discussions with the club.
The Bears signed veteran defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff on Wednesday night, but that move doesn’t diminish the team’s interest in bringing back Melton, who put together a Pro Bowl season in 2012, only to follow with a three-game 2013 campaign that ended with a torn left ACL against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Prior to Melton’s injury, Chicago ranked No. 8 against the run. After, the run defense nosedived to last.
But Melton’s knee isn’t expected to be a major concern for him going into next season, based on comments made by general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman.
“He’s in every day early,” Trestman said last month at the combine. “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 that 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. I spoke to 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. We’ll see where it goes.”
The destination, whether it’s Chicago or elsewhere, will likely be known by the start of the new league year.
But surely, the Bears have contingency plans in place as they could seek out other options through free agency or use their first-round draft pick to bolster the position. A source with knowledge of the team’s thinking mentioned it would be wise to find out the market value for the players the club would like to re-sign once free agency actually opens, before moving too quickly and possibly overspending.
By doing that, the Bears run the risk of losing some of those free agents. Such a scenario could be playing out right now with Melton.