INDIANAPOLIS -- Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery remained mum Thursday when asked whether the team plans to place the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton to prevent him from departing via free agency.
"We'll work through that situation," Emery said during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. "Obviously, we'll be talking to Henry. When we come to a conclusion, everybody will know."
NFL rules allow the Bears to apply the franchise tag by Mar. 4 before the start of free agency and the new league year, which begins on Mar. 12. The tag carries a one-year guaranteed salary of $8.3 million, and with the Bears currently sitting $8.176 million below the salary cap, the franchise tag might be too costly an option for the team at this point.
The Bears used the franchise tag on running back Matt Forte in 2012, but worked out a long-term contract just nine days before the start of training camp. The Bears are optimistic for a similar outcome with Melton, but the $8.3 million tag appears prohibitive without the team freeing up more cap money through the restructuring of other contracts.
Defensive end Julius Peppers is set to earn a base salary of $12.9 million in 2013, but carries a cap charge of $16.383 million. Peppers' cap numbers swell to $17.383 in 2014 and $19.683 million. The Bears could restructure Peppers' contract to free up cap space. But that would only force the team into a situation similar to the current one in another year or two.
The club could also look to sign veteran cornerback Charles Tillman ($8 million cap charge in 2013, the final year of his contract) to a new deal.
Melton tied for third in sacks by defensive tackles with six last season, and forced two fumbles, in addition to contributing 33 tackles in 14 starts, and although the team views Melton as a priority with free agency approaching, it also wants to find a way to bring back veteran guard Lance Louis. A potential new deal could also be on the horizon for quarterback Jay Cutler, who is expected to command at least $10 million per year.
"The cap is the fun challenge," Emery said. "It's a very interesting dynamic in the NFL. I think it's what makes the league what it is in terms of competitiveness. Every player's kind of got a piece of the pie, and how you divide that up is a very interesting and creative process, and allows a lot of big-picture thinking. So we'll take what we have and we'll work through it."