Melton, a 2012 Pro Bowl player, is a pending free agent. There have been no reports of progress on a long-term contract extension, meaning the franchise tag would be the only way for the Bears to assure his return in 2013. The deadline for NFL teams to use the franchise tag is Monday afternoon, but the Bears' salary cap situation, as of Friday morning, would make that a tight fit.
Tagging Melton would require an $8.45 million salary cap commitment for 2013, according to figures posted on NFL.com. That cap hit would remain in place unless the Bears reduce it through a future contract extension. As a result, Melton would consume a significant portion of their available cap space -- currently about $12 million -- during that time period.
Interior pass rush is a valued NFL commodity, and Melton has 13 sacks in his past two seasons. He isn't as strong against the run -- Pro Football Focus rated him No. 47 in run defense among defensive tackles last season -- but that isn't unusual among "three-technique" players in 4-3 schemes.
Often, returning depth provides a clue about a team's plans for the franchise tag. The Bears don't have a young backup player who projects as a replacement for Melton. Stephen Paea, a second-round draft pick in 2011, was already a starter in 2012 at the nose tackle position opposite Melton. Unless they plan to make it a draft priority, you would have to assume that Melton remains in the Bears' plans.
We'll find out for sure by Monday. If he hits the open market, you can be assured that some team would be willing to pay for a 26-year-old Pro Bowl defensive tackle with 13 sacks in two seasons.