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Bears GM Emery must decide if Melton is worth the risk

CHICAGO IL - NOVEMBER 25:  Henry Melt#69 Chicago Bears rushes against BrandFusco #63 MinnesotVikings Soldier Field November 25 2012

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 25: Henry Melton #69 of the Chicago Bears rushes against Brandon Fusco #63 of the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field on November 25, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Vikings 28-10. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Henry Melton; Brandon Fusco

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Updated: March 6, 2014 11:17PM

Is Henry Melton still Henry Melton?

That’s arguably the most intriguing question general manager Phil Emery will have to answer in free agency. Melton, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in 2012, is coming off ACL surgery on his left knee that limited him to three games last season.

Free-agency decisions more often are about known commodities, and Melton is anything but. His three games in 2013 were unremarkable, though his actual impact at his position in the Bears’ defense is difficult to define. His grades by Pro Football Focus were low for a player coming off a Pro Bowl season. But he did improve every game — from minus-4.6 to minus-2.4 to 0.0 in 33 snaps against the Steelers on Sept. 22.

And for what it’s worth, the Bears’ run defense was eighth in the NFL in yards per game and yards per carry in the first three games and didn’t start plummeting to last place in the NFL until after Melton was injured — followed by Nate Collins, Stephen Paea, D.J. Williams, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman.

This isn’t like trying to figure out whether Israel Idonije or Nick Roach or even Brian Urlacher fits in your plans. Emery pretty much knew what he was giving up when he decided to move on last year. But Melton should be in his prime. His Pro Bowl season, while not the kind that promised future greatness, wasn’t a fluke. His impact was real.

‘‘Henry Melton is a terrific three-technique, albeit undersized,’’ said Bill Polian, who built Super Bowl teams as general manager of the Bills, Panthers and Colts. ‘‘In the [cover-2] system, you can play with those guys. I don’t know whether Marc [Trestman], Phil and others in the Bears organization think he fits for them. And it’s always, always, always colored by injury.’’

Indeed it is. And with the Bears, that color always seems to have a foreboding hue. Melton is 27. He should be able to recover from knee surgery and be pretty close to what he was, if not better.

But with the Bears, you just never know. The Bears have had a string of bad luck with players who’ve had major surgeries and never were the same — Lance Louis, Gabe Carimi, Tommie Harris, Nathan Vasher. Mike Brown made the Pro Bowl in 2005 after recovering from surgery on his Achilles but couldn’t stay healthy. Urlacher recovered from surgery to make two Pro Bowls. But that was a wrist. This is a leg.

That only adds to the intrigue — not just for Emery but for every team that courts Melton.

‘‘Who knows what the doctors will say on the physical exam?’’ Polian said. ‘‘As a general rule, you don’t even begin to think about pursuing a player until the doctors say, ‘Go ahead.’ The trainers do exchange information. Typically, fellas coming off fairly serious injuries, that doesn’t bode well as far as top dollar in free agency.’’

Top dollar or not, Melton is a wild card in free agency — a potential bargain or bust. Trestman said at the NFL Scouting Combine last month that Melton is ‘‘in the process’’ and ‘‘hopefully on schedule.’’ Emery said Melton is making ‘‘positive’’ progress. ‘‘We do want to bring back Henry, and we’ll work through that process,’’ Emery said.

After paying Melton $8 million as a franchise-tag player last year, the Bears likely will bring Melton back only at their price in 2014 — which could be tricky in a free-agent market aided by an additional $10 million per team in salary-cap resources. How much should the Bears spend to keep him? Your guess is as good as many — and maybe Emery’s. Whether he gets a bargain or overspends to keep Melton, he won’t really know for sure what he’s getting.


Twitter: @MarkPotash

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