IRVING, Texas –The Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't play the Cowboys this year in the regular season.
For first-year head coach Lovie Smith, that's not exactly a bad thing. Not only does he consider Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli one of his best friends, but he wouldn't be that excited about facing the team's defensive line, especially after the acquisition of Henry Melton.
Smith didn't coach Melton last season when the defensive tackle had a down year that included a torn ACL injury. And he wasn't with Marinelli, who was part of a defensive staff that finished last in the NFL in total defense and was the worst in franchise history.
But Smith knows all about Marinelli and Melton working together, something he saw for three years in Chicago when he served as head coach, Marinelli was the defensive coordinator and Melton was an emerging player that developed into a Pro Bowler.
"That's a great combination," Smith said of Melton and Marinelli. "Henry will tell you, the guy that had the most to do with his progress as a defensive linemen, of course it was Rod. Rod is just a great technician and was able to really reach him."
After signing with the Cowboys two weeks ago, Melton spoke very highly of Marinelli, whom the defensive tackle said was more than just a coach.
"He's a great guy," Melton said. "I am excited to play for him. He genuinely cares about you as a person, not just what you can do for him on the field. Of course, he cares about that. But he actually does care about you off the field."
And off the field is actually where some of Melton's red flags come into consideration. In late December, he was arrested at a bar in his hometown of Grapevine, which is about 15 minutes away from the Cowboys' practice facility in Valley Ranch. Melton got into a physical incident with bartenders, staff members and security officials of the bar, but has since sued the establishment, claiming he was the victim in the incident, which has put a negative light on him during free agency.
The Cowboys signed Melton to a one-year contract that is worth about $2.5 million but could be doubled to $5 million depending on playing time incentives. The Cowboys can also pick up a three-year option on Melton's deal after the season.
Smith said he believes Melton will not only be healthy and more effective, but will turn things around with his former coach now running the Cowboys defense.
"He's a local guy. There's nothing like coming home to play for your hometown Cowboys," Smith said of Melton. "Henry felt a comfort level knowing what he was going to get as a coach. He didn't have a great season last year, but he knows that Rod can help him get back." [embedded_ad]
Last year, Marinelli saw three of his defensive linemen have career seasons: Jason Hatcher, George Selvie and Nick Hayden.
"It's not a coincidence," Smith said. "You know what he's going to get. Henry will have a great year, like all lineman seem to do under Rod."
Smith's head-coaching colleague in Dallas certainly agrees.
"He's just an outstanding football coach. He really is," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Marinelli. "There are a lot of examples throughout his career where you have a highly-talented player, a first-round pick who he gets the most out of it. OK, how about the mid-round pick? How about the older guy? How about the younger guy? How about the guy who was a free agent? He seems to, in this defensive scheme, get a lot out of these guys. They certainly buy in to how he coaches them. He's been in one of the best coaches in this league for a long time."
Garrett said the Cowboys have liked Melton for a long time and would've considered signing him even without the Marinelli connection. But, it certainly doesn't hurt.
"He's at a place we can very confidently think he's going to be a big part of what we're doing this year," Garrett said of Melton. "He played really well in an environment up there in Chicago when Rod was the defensive line coach. We feel like that marriage can be a really good one for him, and hopefully we can get him to play his best and he can have an impact on our defensive front."
Melton is likely to replace Hatcher, who signed a free-agent deal with the Redskins, as the 3-technique defensive tackle. Hatcher had a career season with 11 sacks, the most by a Cowboys tackle since Randy White recorded 12.5 in 1984. Melton is rehabbing an ACL injury, but is expected to participate in most of the summer practices, although the Cowboys will certainly be cautious with his return.