Melton No. 6 on list of 'must-sign' FAs

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando put out his list of the top 25 ‘must-sign’ free agents on Tuesday, with Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton checking in at No. 6.

Sando brings up a salient point in his analysis of Melton, whose market value could be diminished because of the torn ACL he suffered against the Steelers in September, not to mention last month’s arrest on charges of misdemeanor assault and public intoxication.

Sando writes: "This one is complicated by the ACL injury Melton suffered during the season. A recent arrest presents another issue to navigate. The Bears defense was not the same after Melton left the lineup, as GM Phil Emery noted recently: "The under-tackle position in the scheme that we're in is the engine that drives the defense. And when he was in the game, even though from a statistical standpoint he wasn't off to a fast start, it was very evident on tape that he was a very important part of the defense."

Just before saying that, however, Emery seemed to hint at concern regarding Melton’s rehabilitation and dedication to the game. With Melton set to become a free agent, Emery’s remarks could have been a ploy to devalue the defensive tackle. But it’s worth noting that Emery typically doesn’t play those types of games.

Melton signed a one-year franchise tender that paid $8.45 million in 2013, but it’s highly unlikely the team would tag him again.

“Henry in particular, he has got to fully dedicate himself to rehab,” Emery said. “He has to fully dedicate his mind and focus to football, which is extremely important. As I have sat down with him, there was a reason we franchise-tagged him; a reason for that investment. So he knows, and that has been related to him that we signed you for a reason. Now let’s focus in on getting healthy. Obviously he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure that he’s focused in on football and having a passion for football.”

With Melton coming off a season in which he missed 13 games, yet received the largest salary of his five-year career, Emery’s concerns would seem valid. Given the importance of Melton’s position relative to the club’s scheme, the Bears need a player totally healthy and 100-percent focused on doing his job to the best of his ability.

Melton’s ACL injury likely won’t scare teams away in free agency. But it could keep him from cashing in on the big money typically doled out during the first wave of free agency, which would obviously be beneficial for the Bears, which lost some cap space with the Jay Cutler extension as well as other deals with players such as Tim Jennings, Matt Slauson and Robbie Gould.

Emery noted “we’re going to have to draft to get younger” on defense, but free agency might be able to infuse some youth as well.

Five attractive potential targets for the Bears made Sando’s list, including Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy (26 sacks the past two seasons, and he’s 26 years old), Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson (he’ll be 27 in Feb.), Seattle’s Michael Bennett (the younger brother of Bears tight end Martellus Bennett), in addition to Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd and Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields.

Speaking about his brother recently, Martellus Bennett said, “I’m trying to get him here as well. Hopefully, when that starts, I get to go upstairs and talk to some people about that.”

There’s still quite a while before that time comes, but Sando’s list makes for some interesting conversation.