IRVING, Texas **– Henry Melton officially signed his one-year contract with a three-year team option Wednesday in Dallas at Valley Ranch.
The Cowboys' new three-technique defensive tackle, who agreed to terms with the Cowboys on Tuesday, believes he should be ready to roll fully by training camp after an ACL injury ended his 2013 season early.
"Anybody that checks me out and looks at my knee, they're all saying training camp is a good day," Melton said.
That's good news for the Cowboys, who just picked up the defensive tackle widely regarded as the best player left in free agency at his position.
The Cowboys signed Melton believing he can get back to being the player who accumulated seven sacks in 2011 and six sacks in 2012, but the unique contract Melton signed gives the team some protection. Melton, who's from the Dallas area and went to high school in nearby Grapevine, Texas, will only count $2.75 million against the cap with a $1.25 base salary in 2014 and can earn up to $5 million this year.
If Melton proves himself worthy by getting back to his Pro Bowl level of play and is on the roster by the start of the 2015 season, the team can exercise their three-year option. That'll raise Melton's price tag, give him reportedly $9 million in guaranteed money and allow him to get paid on par with some of the top defensive tackles in the league.
Melton knows he has to earn that three-year option or risk returning to free agency, and that doesn't bother him. He said this year in Dallas is a proving ground, and pairing back up with Rod Marinelli, his former defensive coordinator during his best years in Chicago, adds to his faith he can return to form.
"It's like you're betting on yourself," Melton said. "I feel like with me and my rehab and coming back with Rod and the good defense that's here, I can get back to that form. I believe in that, and obviously they believe in me to get it done."
Melton had surgery on his knee in October, but he's already sprinting and lifting and gradually working his way back into shape. He's five and a half months removed from the surgery, and he said every team he visited, including the doctors in Dallas, said he's on track with where he needs to be to return for training camp.
Despite the injury, Melton still garnered significant interest in free agency and made visits to the Vikings and the Seahawks before coming to Dallas. He said he didn't know what to expect in terms of offers from teams when he entered free agency off the knee injury, but he wasn't worried about it.
"God has a plan for everybody," Melton said. "It was all out of my hands. My agent really didn't know what the market value was. We were just going to visit some teams, see where everyone's heads were at. I came here and pretty much fell in love, so that was the end of that story."
Melton also had a visit set up with the Rams after leaving Dallas with no deal, but he said he knew when he visited the Cowboys that he wanted to be in Dallas.
"They really wanted me to come," Melton said. "I looked at what I can do here and what they're trying to build here." [embedded_ad]
Melton said Dallas felt familiar, from the actual surroundings to the defensive system he'll be playing in.
Melton's a University of Texas product who actually began his college career as a running back before switching to the defensive side of the ball. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Bears in 2009 and has spent his whole career in Chicago since. Melton's played in 48 games and started 32 of them, totaling 15.5 sacks during that span.
After losing DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher in free agency, the Cowboys need to rely on Melton as the primary disruptive force in the middle.
The Cowboys saw at home in first person what Melton was capable of doing to an offensive line. Melton began his Pro Bowl 2012 season with four sacks in the first three games, including one on Tony Romo at AT&T Stadium.
"I had about 30 people there," Melton recalled. "The atmosphere there is just crazy. I was back home and everything was just clicking. It was a great game."
The Cowboys hope he's still got many more of those left in the tank.