When the Dallas Cowboys travel to Chicago for Thursday’s showdown against the Bears, it will be homecoming of sorts for defensive tackle Henry Melton.
Melton was a third-round pick of the Bears in 2009 and blossomed into a Pro Bowler during a five-year stay before signing a free-agent contract in the off-season to come home and play for the Cowboys.
Melton, who grew up in Grapevine and played at the University of Texas, hasn’t had the homecoming in Dallas that he and the Cowboys expected.
Although he leads the team with five sacks, Melton hasn’t become the linchpin in the middle of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 scheme that he was built up to be.
He’s been slowed by a gimpy surgically repaired knee that sidelined him for all but three games last season. He’s been replaced in the Cowboys’ starting lineup by Tyrone Crawford.
“I’m still trying to get it right,” Melton said. “It’s going week to week. I’m just making sure there were no setbacks. I feel like I’m getting better as the season goes on.”
The Cowboys respect the work Melton has put in trying to get healthy and believe he still has a chance to make a huge impact over the final four games.
The Cowboys are also comforted by the development of Crawford at the all-important under-tackle position in Marinelli’s defense.
“I think Henry is a work in progress, and a lot of that has to do with his health,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He continues to work his way back from the knee injury that he had, and he’s done some good things for us this year — both playing that under-tackle spot and also as a pass rusher, both inside and outside.
“Tyrone Crawford has really emerged in there, and I think that’s a good fit for him. It really looks like he’s gravitated toward that position, being a guy who can play every down — first and second down, and then also be a third-down pass rusher.”
Melton is partly motivated to play well in his return to Chicago because the team that drafted him and groomed him as a Pro Bowler let him walk in free agency after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury three games into a season they had pegged him as their franchise player.
“That’s how it goes,” Melton said. “You know, it’s a business — one day, you’re a franchise player and the next year you’re gone. It’s no hard feelings, but it’s a business. I don’t want to say it’s been circled, but I’ve been looking forward to it.”
Ironically, the business aspect of his deal in Dallas could spoil his stay with his hometown team. Melton essentially bet on himself when he signed a four-year, $29 million contract that is really a one-year, make-good deal.
His contract has him making a $1.25 million base salary with a $1 million signing bonus in 2014. He will get another $1.25 million for being on the game-day roster every week. Melton has a chance to get up to $1.5 million with play-time and sack incentives with the maximum amount being reached only if he made the Pro Bowl.
In the final three years of the deal, Melton can make a guaranteed $9 million in 2015 and $7.5 million in 2016 and 2017.
The kicker, however, is that the Cowboys can walk away from the final three years of the deal if they don’t exercise the option on his guaranteed 2015 salary by the first day of the league year.
Considering Crawford’s emergence and Melton’s slow return from the knee injury, it’s unlikely the Cowboys are going to pick up the option and guarantee a backup player $9 million for next season.
Melton’s agent Jordan Woy said he has no idea what the Cowboys are going to do.
“I can’t get too far into that,” Melton said. “It’s been a long road. I can’t do anything but play hard. I’m just blessed to be where I am right now.”
Melton knows he will be better next season when he’s one more year removed from the injury. He is open to a return to Dallas with or without the team picking up the option. He could simply sign another free-agent contract with the team.
After all, he is at home.
“I love Dallas,” Melton said. “I love the fan base. I’ve enjoyed my time here so far. I love being a Cowboy.”