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Spagnola: Signing Henry Melton A Start, Not A Finish


IRVING, Texas – Snapshot: Cowboys sign free-agent defensive tackle Henry Melton.

Snapshot: Cowboys sign free-agent defensive end Jeremy Mincey.

Snapshot: Cowboys sign free agent defensive tackle Terrell McClain.

Defensive line big picture: Uh, well, the pinwheel still is spinning. Hasn't finished downloading yet.

By no means.

Now, many seem to belting out the Hallelujah Chorus over the Cowboys' signing this week of Melton, the former Chicago Bears Pro Bowl defensive tackle from 2012 who played just three games in 2013 before a torn anterior cruciate ligament in need of reconstruction sent him to the sideline for the remainder of the season. His rehab is just past the halfway point, five and a half months, and he won't hit what generally is considered for most the nine-month mark of completion until the end of July – right about the start of training camp.

So we'll see, although all projections suggest the 6-3, 290-pounder from right here in next-door Grapevine, Texas, via the University of Texas, is right on track to be fit enough to begin training camp with the Cowboys, likely to start that final week of July. There are no guarantees, though, when dealing with Mother Nature.

But this prove-to-me contract Melton signed on Wednesday is loaded with enough incentives for him to work diligently enough to be ready for the season opener, the Cowboys hope. First, there is a $500,000 workout bonus in the deal, one the Cowboys certainly want to pay him if he completes his prescribed number of offseason workouts here at The Ranch. And then there is the ability to earn an additional $78,000 every time he is on the game-day 46-man roster, which would total $1.25 million if he is active for all 16 games.

In other words, protection for the Cowboys and incentive for Melton. Win-win.

So is the contract. Melton can make at the very least $3.5 million if he's active for all 16 games and completes his offseason workouts, and as much as $5 million if he meets playing time and sack incentives. Do that and the possibility of activating a three-year, $24 million deal with $9 million in guarantees if on the roster the first day of the 2015 league year then becomes real.

On the other hand, the Cowboys would be obligated to pay him no more than $2.25 million if he's a total flop, and just for one year, but would be more than glad to extend the deal of the 27-year-old if he is what he was in 2011-12 playing for Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli in Chicago.

But don't for one minute think the signing of Melton completes the refurbishing of the Cowboys' defensive line. Not even close. If Melton is what they hope he is then a foundation has been laid. But do not make the mistake of letting these words pass your lips: Now that the Cowboys have signed Melton, what other position can they now concentrate on in the draft?

Telling, you don't do it. As you can see from how the contract is structured, there are no guarantees. And what if a normal nine-month rehab should happen to take, oh, say 11 months. Then what?

Look, just because Melton is onboard, and right now for this year only, that doesn't mean the Cowboys should turn their nose up at No. 16 in the NFL Draft come May 8 if a defensive tackle they really like is available. Aaron Donald, why not? Anyone else they deem worth selecting to play the 3-technique that's available at 16, why not? Remember, if all things were equal last year and Jay Ratliff was who they were counting on him to be, the eventual 3-technique stud Jason Hatcher was being penciled in to man the 1-technique spot.

So Melton and Donald, or whomever, why not? Doesn't seem there is a predetermined mold in Marinelli's scheme.

Remember, too, the wave, the newest hot term out here at The Ranch, meaning send waves of players at 'em. For that you need depth. Great the Cowboys have last year's find Nick Hayden and signed McClain. And let's not forget the impending return of Tyrone Crawford, the forgotten man, who can play a little 3-technique, can play the strongside defensive end spot and maybe even rush as the 1-technique on the nickel.

Great, but let's not lose sight of the defensive end spot, and many have when I hear about taking a safety with the first-round pick or another offensive lineman or even a quarterback. Please. Melton plays defensive tackle, right, not defensive end, and they are far from being out of the woods there.

Yep, George Selvie, the wonder-find of last year, is a keeper, and can play DE on the strongside. Who knows, maybe if Anthony Spencer shows any signs of recovering from last year's microfracture knee surgery he can be signed to a deal similar to Melton's. In other words, prove yourself before you get serious bucks, a rather novel concept, right?

Don't forget Caesar Rayford, the guy the Cowboys traded for last summer but never really blossomed in his first NFL season. This will be a crucial offseason and training camp for him. And the Cowboys did sign Mincey, a one-time productive starter in Jacksonville from 2011-12. Didn't have to commit big dollars for him, but might provide some bang for the buck. All those guys, though, mostly all strongside dudes.

But if you are scoring at home, you haven't heard a peep about the weakside defensive end, have you? Not a mention of the probable replacement for the departed DeMarcus Ware? That should concern you … still.

Finding better than the seven-time Pro Bowler Ware, the team's all-time sack leader, is going to be hard. For a while, maybe even impossible, and sounds as if free agent Jared Allen's pass-through The Ranch was just that, both sides kicking the tires. And even if Allen reneges on what appeared to be a deal with Seattle, that ship has sailed here if he expects to make what Ware will make in Denver. [embedded_ad]

And it's not as if there are a bunch of these pass rushers still available in free agency, or ones the Cowboys could even afford in the first place. So that means defensive end will be flashing brightly on the Cowboys draft radar, but again they must display restraint at No. 16, not just taking a defensive end there to take one. That's gets you in trouble.

Hard part is the Cowboys drafted a guy of Ware's caliber at No. 11, only five spots higher than their 2014 standing. But after Jadeveon Clowney, who is likely to go among the top five picks, if not the first, there really isn't a Ware-caliber player available at defensive end after that. Or at least not an obvious one to select that high. We'll see how all that turns out.

So as you can see, the Cowboys work at this point on a defensive line totally wiped out from what it was supposed to be at the start of training camp no more than eight months ago is not near complete. Melton helps greatly if he still is the same Melton who became the inside soul to the Bears defensive line two and three years ago. The gamble they are taking is well worth it. The gamble Melton is taking on himself is well worth it. Just no way to know for sure.

Which is why, if I were you, I wouldn't gamble posing in front of this current defensive line picture just yet for that celebratory selfie.

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