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Henry Melton and the Chicago Bears: the pressure’s on

Can the Chicago Bears and defensive tackle Henry Melton agree to a long term deal before the July 15 deadline?

Can the Chicago Bears and defensive tackle Henry Melton (69) agree to a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline?

Shortly before free agency opened in March, the Chicago Bears placed the franchise tag on Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton. He signed it less than a week later, meaning that he is currently under contract with the franchise for one year, with a fully guaranteed $8.45 million salary.

Now is when things really get interesting. Melton and the Chicago Bears have until July 15 to work out a long-term contract. If they fail to do so, Melton will play out the 2013 season on the franchise tag and become an unrestricted free agent next offseason.

Of course, the Bears could always franchise Melton again next year, but doing so would give him a 20-percent raise, meaning that they would be forced to pay him a fully guaranteed $10.14 million, which is a tremendous amount of money for a defensive tackle. Otherwise they will have a chance to sign him to a long-term contract in free agency or be forced to watch a high-caliber player entering his prime walk away for nothing.

Obviously, Chicago Bears prefer to get Melton signed to a reasonable deal this year, especially considering his status as their only Pro Bowl-caliber defensive player who is under the age of 30 (Melton will turn 27 during the 2013 season).

Chicago Bears fans hope the Henry Melton franchise tag ends the same way that Matt Forte's (pictured) did in 2012.

Chicago Bears fans hope the Henry Melton franchise tag ends the same way that Matt Forte’s (pictured) did in 2012.

This situation is nothing new to the Chicago Bears, who (WCSN fans may remember) faced exactly the same dilemma with running back Matt Forte last year. The two sides were stalled for months, but ultimately agreed to a contract at the last minute. Such a scenario remains a possibility for Melton, but he could be tougher to sign because he is in a better position to wait for what he thinks is a fair contract.

Melton only has two years as a starter under his belt, compared to Forte’s four at the time, meaning he has less wear and tear. Given the high rate of turnover at the running back position, Forte was in a relatively poor bargaining position last summer, as the team could have easily franchised him for two years before putting him out on the street in 2014 as someone who is almost washed up. Instead, Forte signed a four-year deal, guaranteeing him more money than the franchise tags were worth, with the possibility to earn almost double the money he would have received had he been franchised twice.

Melton, however, could easily still be a top-shelf player for another six or seven years. This means that he can afford to play this year and even next year under the franchise tag, make a sizable sum of guaranteed money, and still sign one big contract in free agency after that. Of course, the downside is that sustaining a significant injury while playing under the franchise tag might mean he never gets his big payday.

Ultimately, it is in the best interests of both parties to work out a contract before the July 15 deadline. The Chicago Bears can lock up one of their best young players for the foreseeable future, while Melton can enjoy the security such a deal brings.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether the two parties can agree on what exactly is fair value for a player who is just starting to come into his own. My personal opinion is that somewhere around five years and $35 million (with $20 million guaranteed) sounds about right, but my views don’t matter in these negotiations. The Forte deal was simplified last year by the fact that three other running back contracts were signed for about the same $8 million per year Forte ended up getting, but there have been no such deals for defensive tackles this offseason that Chicago Melton can use as a starting point.

If a deal does end up being struck, I expect it to be at the twelfth hour. Very little will happen until next Monday, when we fill find out for certain if Henry Melton is a part of Chicago’s young core for the future or simply another of the growing number of veterans with a contract that expires after the season.