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Though free agency doesn't start until mid-March, the Bears can make a move on one of their most coveted players as early as today. This is the day they can start using the franchise tag to make sure they don't lose one of their best players in free agency. Don't be surprised to see the Bears use it on Henry Melton.
Holding onto Melton has to be one of Phil Emery's main goals of free agency because of the promise the young defensive lineman has shown. In his third season, he made it to the Pro Bowl. He had six sacks and two forced fumbles in 2012. He'll turn 27 in 2013, meaning he has the potential for many great seasons in Chicago.
With the tag placed on him Melton would be set to make more than $8 million in 2013, a hefty pay raise from the $565,000 he made in 2012. But the pay raise doesn't mean Melton will be thrilled with being tagged. Though the tag would allow the Bears and Melton more time to negotiate a long term deal, it will also keep him from finding out what the market will pay for him.
It also would mean much of the Bears' salary cap would be tied up in a few defensive players. They have to be careful to make sure they have enough for players like Brian Urlacher (if they keep him around) and Israel Idonije who provide veteran leadership. They also have to be ready to give Melton a longer term deal at some point, tying up cap room for next season when Jay Cutler's contract will come up.
If Emery does tag Melton, it won't be the first time he used it during his short time as the Bears' general manager. He used it on Matt Forte in 2012 to give the two sides more time to work out a long-term deal. Forte did get the deal he wanted, but considerable acrimony arose between the player and his team.
But some hurt feelings between the two sides isn't a good enough reason for the Bears not to tag Melton. Other teams will covet his pass-rushing skill, and it's best for the Bears to hang onto the young star.