With Mel Tucker taking over the defensive play calling for the Chicago Bears there has been numerous questions about his philosophy. He has experience with a 3-4, he's experienced in a 4-3, his aggressiveness has been called into question, yada yada yada...
It's a good thing we have a number of talented writers at Windy City Gridiron that has dropped some info on Tucker, so that we may learn a little more about the man and his coaching style. So before we get into the defensive side of the ball on our Roster Turnover series, be sure to catch up on the man calling the defensive shots.
The Bears are fortunate that they have a couple defensive ends that can kick inside to bolster the defensive tackle depth, but for this post the focus will be squarely on the five players that are exclusive to the interior. Looking at the contract situations at DT, there's a chance this position group will look differently next season.
Henry Melton - Free Agent - I think re-signing Melton will be a priority for Phil Emery. He's shown flashes of his Pro Bowl potential for a few years now, but last year he finally made a trip to Hawaii. The Bears do have the option of franchise tagging him to ensure he sticks around for 2013, but when you consider his youth (26) and relative health (missed 3 games in 3 years), I think a long term deal makes sense.
I also think breaking the bank for Melton would be a mistake. Don't get me wrong, I think he's a very good player, but his three year career numbers read like one really good season. A defensive lineman getting 84 tackles and 15.5 sacks in one year deserves top money, a player compiling those in three seasons, and coming off a Pro Bowl year is due a substantial raise. For comparisons sake, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, who plays 5-Technique DE in a 3-4, but aligns all up and down the d-line, just finished 2012 with 81 tackles and 20.5 sacks. Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, a 4-3 DT, just ended the year with 53 tackles and 12.5 sacks. Atkins was also the top graded DT according to Pro Football Focus, with a +80.0.
PFF had Melton as the #7 overall DT with a +15.8, and as the 7th best in the pass rushing category with an equal grade of +15.8. It was against the run where Melton struggled at times, and PFF had him way down at #47 with a -1.5.
If I were writing the checks at Halas Hall, I'd offer a fair and comparable contract, and if he turned it down, I'd slap the franchise tag on him. He's young enough that you can't let him walk, and overpaying for 2013 is a smart commitment (around $8 million if tagged) to see if he can equal his Pro Bowl success. If he does it again in 2013, you up the offer, and get a long term deal done.
Stephen Paea -Signed through 2014 - Paea played the second most snaps at DT in 2012 for the Bears, 603, and he finished with a +1.7 PFF grade. He nearly doubled his snaps from his rookie season, and I thought he had a solid sophomore campaign. PFF only had him with 3 negatively graded games on the 2012 season, with weeks 7 and 8 being the worst when he compiled a -2.7 and a -2.9 respectively. Those two weeks really drug down his overall grade.
Matt Toeaina - Signed through 2013 - Toeaina finished the '12 season on injured reserve appearing in only three games, and he missed four games due to injury in 2011. I'd say his place on the 2013 roster is on the fence. He's known as a run stuffer, but he's never graded out positively in that category according to PFF. According to Spotrac, his cap hit for 2013 is $1,625,000 with a base salary of $760,000. If the Bears are looking to save a little money, he could be released.
Nate Collins - Restricted Free Agent - I don't think many Bears fans expected much from Collins when he signed his one year deal last off season, but he was a solid player. In limited action, Collins was the 2nd best DT on the Bears according to PFF. As a rotational DT he graded out with a +4.9 in 247 snaps. I think he's definitely worth bringing back for '13. He also has some familiarity with Bears D.C. Mel Tucker, as his 1st two seasons were spent as a Jaguar.
Amobi Okoye - Free Agent - Okoye had a couple different stints in Chicago last season, and he played like you would expect from a 4th DT. For a guy that isn't known for his run stopping, he actually had the best PFF grade among the Bears DT in that category, +1.5. Even with that grade, I don't think he'll return in 2013, but at just 25 years old, he might be worth another look.
2013 OUTLOOK - Everything hinges on the re-signing of Henry Melton, and since he's the most attractive 4-3 defensive tackle hitting free agency, some team may chuck a ton of dough at him. Melton could also kick out and play a 3-4 DE in some schemes, so his value may increase. If Melton gets away, then bringing back Okoye would be more likely.
Last year at Jacksonville, Mel Tucker had three DTs all get over 600 snaps a piece, so we could assume he'll rotate at least three guys at DT. But If we go back to his 2010 year coordinating the Jags D, he had two DTs each dominate the snaps with over 800 apiece. I think he'll rotate players accordingly, if he has the talent that warrants playing time.
I think the Bears will look to draft a DT at some point, and I would expect a few undrafted free agents to come in and compete in camp. With or without Melton, the Bears do need to get some competition at the position.