BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Lost in the Soldier Field controversy, Matt Forte's potential new contract, and receiver Johnny Knox's latest woes, defensive tackle Henry Melton looms as one of the Chicago Bears' most significant storylines headed into the season.
Why? Well, let’s not forget that the foundation to Chicago’s scheme lies in the middle of the defensive line, where the club took advantage for years of near-guaranteed production from recently-departed defensive tackle Tommie Harris.
Now, it’s Melton’s turn to take on the bell-cow role.
“After we watched the video from last year, [we noticed] he did a lot of good things. That’s why we started him off as our starting three-technique under tackle,” said Bears coach Lovie Smith.
Smith tempered enthusiasm for Melton in the offseason because the rising third-year man hadn’t made much of an impact thus far. But depth-chart moves don’t lie, and as of right now, Melton is running with the starters opposite veteran Anthony Adams.
“Everything you’re looking for in a defensive lineman… I’m talking about quickness, speed, strength. He’s gotten his weight up. He’s a good pass rusher inside. I just think he has everything that you’re looking for,” Smith said. “Right now he just needs to play and continue to get reps.”
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.
Although his production tapered off toward the end of the season (two tackles and a half sack over the last six games), Melton flashed enough talent with limited opportunities 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 told ESPNChicago.com at the NFL owners meetings. “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.”
In addition to tremendous athleticism (he scored 10 touchdowns as a freshman running back at the University of Texas) and a seemingly non-stop motor, Melton continues to hone his craft in technical areas of pass rushing and run support such as hand placement and leverage. Similar to defensive end Israel Idonije, who played multiple roles before finally locking in on a spot in 2010, Melton might also benefit from specializing at one or two spots along the defensive front.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said Melton and the entire unit are making progress.
“It counts more when you get the pads on, and we really just had a couple of days there,” Marinelli said. “We’re seeing good progress. I think when you motivate people it’s about getting better at your basic fundamentals. Then when they see it on tape, your confidence goes up. You take these men, you see where they’re at and now you just work them, every day.
Melton bulked up during the lockout from his listed 2010 weight of 260 pounds to close to 300 pounds. Although Smith and Angelo effusively praised Melton during the offseason, it’s important to note the team still used a second-round pick in April to bring in Stephen Paea, who is currently alternating between the nose and under-tackle spots.
So nothing is guaranteed for Melton.
The roster already contains two run stuffers at defensive tackle in Adams and Matt Toeina. Now the Bears hope Melton adds the pass-rushing dimension at the under-tackle role vacated by Harris.
“He’s working hard,” Smith said. “I’m expecting a big year from him.”