Melton could fill void left by Harris

Due diligence dictates the Chicago Bears should seriously explore the possibility of adding a defensive tackle in the April draft to replace recently-departed defensive line stalwart Tommie Harris.

Bears coach Lovie Smith indicated as much at the NFL owners meetings on Tuesday, along with general manager Jerry Angelo.

“We lost Tommie Harris, a player that’s been one of the faces of the franchise, has done a lot of good things as a rusher for us. We still need to bring in another [pass-rushing defensive tackle],” Smith said. “We subtracted one. We need to bring in at least one more defensive lineman. As we look at defensive linemen, we’re not looking for run stoppers. He has to be able to rush the passer.”

Interestingly, though, Harris’ potential replacement could already be on the roster in rising third-year man Henry Melton, judging from the effusive praise showered on him by Smith and Angelo.

Coming off a disappointing rookie season spent on the injured reserve, Melton made tremendous strides in 2010 while contributing in a limited role. Melton finished the regular season with 17 tackles, 2½ sacks and nine quarterback pressures.

Melton started the season with just two tackles in the first five games, but came on as the season progressed, pumping out 13 stops during a five-game stretch from Oct. 17 through Nov. 18.

Melton’s production tapered off toward the end of the season (two tackles and a half sack over the last six games), but the defensive lineman flashed enough talent with limited playing time to convince the staff he could be even more disruptive with increased snaps.

“The plan is for him to play more, and hopefully be a starter,” Angelo said of Melton. “Everything we saw this past year we liked. The arrow’s going up. We feel, physically speaking, he’s got everything you want in terms of size, speed, toughness. Now it’s just a matter of learning the position that will come with the repetition of more plays. We feel real good. No guarantees, but everything we look for he has.”

In addition to freakish athleticism and a seemingly non-stop motor, Melton continues to hone his skills in the technical areas of pass rushing such as hand placement and leverage. Similar to defensive end Israel Idonije, who played a variety of roles along the defensive line and special teams before finally locking in on a position in 2010, Melton might also benefit from specializing at just one or two spots along the defensive front.

At least that’s how Smith sees it.

“There was a time when Israel Idonije was on kickoff return, kickoff team, then played inside and outside. When we were able to lock him in at the defensive end position, we really saw his play improve,” Smith said. “I think the same thing will happen with Henry. Henry was on the kickoff return team, on the kickoff team. But now we’ll be able to lock him in more to just maybe one or two positions. I just think [with him] working on that daily, you’ll see his numbers go up.”

Melton has bulked up from his listed weight in 2010 of 260 pounds to close to 300 pounds, and even though Smith and Angelo are high on him, it’s almost certain the team will use a draft pick in April to select a defensive tackle.

The roster already contains one -- possibly two if the Bears can sign unrestricted free agent Anthony Adams -- run-stuffing defensive tackle in Matt Toeina. Now the Bears look for someone to assume the under-tackle role vacated by Harris.

“[Melton] could easily be the starter. You just look at what we’re getting with him,” Smith said. “[He’s] a guy that started at running back for the University of Texas as a freshman, and scored 10 touchdowns. So that’s the type of athlete you’re getting. So [in terms of] athletic ability, no defensive tackle will have more athletic ability than Henry. He’s a tough guy, too. He’s strong, coachable. So as I say, the sky’s the limit. I think he’s really gonna take off when he gets his opportunity to get more reps.”

Smith made sure to temper some of the praise, as Angelo had done the day before during an interview with ESPNChicago.com.

As talented as Melton may be, the Bears could possibly find a player just as gifted in the first two rounds of the draft. Most mock drafts indicate the Bears will use their first-round pick to select an offensive tackle, which is definitely an area of need.

But Angelo has said the 2011 class of offensive linemen isn’t as strong as this year’s group of defensive linemen.

Besides that, Smith says a team can never have enough defensive linemen.

“Even if we love everyone, the next year we’ll be looking to see if we can get an improvement because it all starts with that for us,” Smith said. “We have options with Henry. I just think he’s gonna be one of those guys that we’re gonna be talking about. [But] I don’t want to get too high on a guy who hasn’t done a lot. He’s definitely one of those guys with a lot of potential.”