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Signing Melton would give Bears more draft flexibility

INDIANAPOLIS -- Phil Emery had a wide smile on his face when he filled the concourse at Lucas Oil Stadium with some smoke Thursday morning.

NFL draft season has arrived.

Interpret every bit of information as carefully as possible, especially when the Bears general manager talks about the wealth of offensive playmakers that will be on the board when the team selects at No. 14 overall.

"I'm sure my peers recognize that," he said.

The Bears are going to have choices, but it's unlikely Emery is in position to make that kind of choice. The Bears can't accomplish their stated goals of rebuilding the defense and getting younger on that side of the ball by making a luxury selection to boost the league's No. 2 scoring offense.

But if the Bears re-sign defensive tackle Henry Melton, something Emery indicated he's going to try to do, all of a sudden the club will have a little flexibility with the first-round pick, especially if the team can make another move or two. It's going to require work from both sides as the team didn't get close to a multiyear deal with Melton a year ago, when he was secured with the franchise tag.

What was interesting Thursday is Emery and coach Marc Trestman were upbeat about Melton seven weeks after the general manager called him out at the end of the season, and Melton told the Tribune on Tuesday he is "all for staying."

"He's very focused," said Trestman, who met with Melton for 45 minutes Wednesday. "You'll see he dropped some weight. He looks very good physically right now. He's been on time, he's working hard with (athletic trainer) Chris (Hanks). He's committed to getting himself back and he's got work to do to get there, but he's in a very good place right now and we all understand the situation. We'll see where it goes."

Emery was more succinct, saying Melton has "made positive progress." The Bears also are expected to pursue Jeremiah Ratliff after he had what amounted to a five-game tryout at the end of the season. Getting the under tackle position squared away and adding additional depth and experience inside could be the first domino for a defense with multiple needs.

The Bears could need two starting ends, as it is inconceivable the team will carry Julius Peppers' current cap figure of $18.183 million. Emery said Peppers is a member of the team and remains under contract, but the Bears cannot pay the 34-year-old $14 million this season. The club has a plan in place but isn't ready to unveil it. One possibility is the team has nothing to lose to see if Peppers will take a deep pay cut. Or maybe Emery wants to wait until just before the opening of free agency March 11 to release Peppers and increase the team's cap space. Whatever the case, expect action at some point. But the roster isn't going to get younger if most of the veterans are brought back.

Emery stated he wants to bring back cornerback Charles Tillman, who turns 33 Sunday, but called it a "process." That was a word used to describe the club's handling of the Brian Urlacher situation a year ago, but Tillman might be treated a little differently even if he receives only a one-year offer.

"Certainly Charles knows we want him back," said Emery, who went out of his way to congratulate the veteran on his Walter Payton Man of the Year award at the opening of his remarks. "We'll just work through it."

Satisfying their needs at tackle could allow the Bears to look for an edge rusher, a safety or even a cornerback or linebacker in the first round. Trestman is optimistic about the opportunity to improve the defense quickly, just as the team got going offensively a year ago. He cited a recent staff meeting in which he put a roster from a year ago at this time on the board.

"There were 10 players on the offensive side of the ball that were not on the roster at this time of the year and significantly impacted our football team by the end of the season," he said. "I just note that because this is a process we are going through, filtering through our team, filtering through the free agents and then building our team through the draft."

The Bears' draft needs will come into focus after they've made final determinations on their own free agents and set off into the marketplace. Maybe the first move is with Melton.

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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