Henry Melton did not say he wants to be paid like the game's No. 1 defensive tackle but he believes that's what he is.
If Melton's self-assessment is accurate, the Bears will have to pay through the nose to lock up his for the long haul. Melton, a fourth-round pick in 2009 earning $565,000 this season, is in the final year of his rookie contract and hopes to play Sunday against the Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz., after missing the Packers game with a clavicle injury.
It was a good sign that he participated in practice Thursday for the second consecutive day as the Bears need their core players available for a must-win game with the postseason in jeopardy.
"I could definitely play through it but they don't want anything worse to happen to it that would keep me out of the playoffs," Melton, 26, said. "So we're going to see how it feels and maybe give it a go."
Melton, 26, has his future to consider too. He could become a top player in free agency, though it would be surprising if general manager Phil Emery didn't use the franchise tag in the absence a long-term deal.
"We're still playing the 4-3 … there is not another better D-tackle in the league than myself," Melton said. "I feel like that."
Melton is third among tackles in the NFL with six sacks, trailing only the Bengals' Geno Atkins (101/2) and the Lions' Ndamukong Suh (61/2). Melton's 13 sacks since the start of the 2011 season are the most at the position and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said opponents are starting to chip him with a running back on occasion, something you don't see often for three-technique tackles. He also has two forced fumbles and his 20 quarterback pressures are most on the team.
In the run game, Pro Football Focus ranks Melton No. 1 at his position in run-stop percentage just ahead of Atkins and the Seahawks' Brandon Mebane. That has been the single-biggest difference in his game this season.
"The rush part is there," Marinelli said. "He has made some, I don't want to say special, but really good plays in the run game. He has been very effective."
The benchmark for defensive tackles is $10 million annually but it's doubtful Melton can approach that unless he reaches the free market. The franchise tag for the position in 2013 is projected to be about $8.3 million and some believe the Bears ultimately will offer Melton a deal with a guarantee equaling the value of two franchise tags, which is almost exactly what running back Matt Forte received.
The Bears have begun contract talks and Melton characterized those as a "back-and-forth thing."
"I would love to be here. I have grown a lot with this organization, with Chicago and the fans," he said. "It's up to them if they want to keep me. It's definitely rare to see a lot of guys get to the quarterback from the inside and still play the run. The franchise tag is not what we want. I would like the long-term deal."
Of course, if the Bears did place the tag on him in February, it would not preclude him from receiving a multi-year contract before the middle of the summer, similar to what happened with Forte.
For now, it's about the remainder of the season and what Melton can do to help break the team's slump. He is dialed in even if he couldn't tell you who the Cardinals quarterback for Sunday — Ryan Lindley, a rookie sixth-round pick from San Diego State.
"I don't want to know his name," Melton said. "I don't even know his number. That's all I'm going to aim for."