Dallas had been linked to Melton throughout the offseason, primarily because of the defensive tackle's fit in the Cowboys' 4-3 scheme and his familiarity with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
The addition of Melton is huge for a Dallas defense that was absolutely decimated at the defensive tackle position. After losing veteran Jason Hatcher via free agency, the Cowboys were about as thin at the position as any team in the NFL.
Even with Melton in Big D, the team could still be in search of a 1-technique defensive tackle to start alongside him.
The numbers of the deal are slowly being released, so let's take a look at how the contract looks for the Cowboys and how Melton will fit into Dallas.
Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports broke the news that Melton's deal is extremely friendly for Dallas as effectively a one-year contract with a club option for three more seasons.
Henry Melton's deal with Dallas is a 1-year deal that triggers another 3 yrs (and gtd $) if he's on the roster 1st day of '15 league year.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) March 19, 2014
The Dallas Morning News has since reported the exact terms of the contract.
Melton can earn up to just $5 million in 2014 in a "prove it" sort of season. If the Cowboys decide he's fully recovered from last year's knee injury, they can exercise a team option in 2015 that will add three more years to the deal, guaranteeing Melton $9 million that season with an annual average of $8 million.
The contract could end up being expensive, but you have to hand it to the Cowboys on being extremely creative to minimize their downside. If Melton isn't what they expect this season, they can cut ties, so they aren't on the hook in future years.
That gives the contract a low-risk, high-reward characteristic that Dallas hasn't been able to pull off too frequently in the past.
"It’s a fair deal in the first year while he comes back from ACL surgery, then Pro-Bowl-type money moving forward,” Melton's agent said upon announcement of the deal.
Melton shared his thoughts with ESPN.com:
I'm excited to come back home and work with Rod and get back to my Pro Bowl form. It's a great group of guys there and I've talked to them the last few days. Every team I visited, everything checked out and everything looked good.
The Cowboys' new defensive tackle also took to Twitter:
Thank you chicago for the best 5 years of my life!.... I can't wait to begin the next chapter of my life... With a star on my helmet.— Henry Melton (@HenMel) March 19, 2014
The Cowboys signed Melton to get to the quarterback. In his four NFL seasons, he's been able to do that, totaling 15.5 sacks.
Remember, though, that 2010 was Melton's rookie year and he received less than half a season's worth of snaps. The defensive tackle also played in only two full games in 2013.
In his two full seasons (2011 and 2012), Melton totaled 13 sacks. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) indicates that his pressure and sack ranks improved during his first three years in the NFL.
Melton ranked in the top 10 in pressures and top three in sacks in both 2011 and 2012. The fact that Melton ranked higher in sacks than pressures in all three years is really interesting. Most players tend to sack the quarterback at around the same rate once they reach him—most defensive ends turn around one-quarter of pressures into sacks, while defensive tackles are typically lower.
Well, Melton has recorded a sack on 26.3 percent of his career pressures. That's a really high rate for an interior defensive lineman, but because Melton is so light and quick on his feet for a defensive tackle, there's good reason to think he can keep it up.
He's basically a big defensive end playing inside, which means he should be able to rack up more sacks than the typical defensive tackle—even relative to how often he pressures the quarterback.
Although teams should find talented players and then mold the scheme around their skill sets, Melton really is a perfect fit for what Dallas wants to do on defense.
His quickness from the defensive tackle position is very clear and he's going to provide a serious pass-rushing threat that the team desperately needs in 2014.
The Cowboys did a great job signing Melton to a one-year deal with a strong possibility of three extra years. Taking a look at historic defensive tackle production—in terms of approximate value—the Cowboys should have Melton during his career prime.
Melton will start the 2014 season at age 27. If he plays as the Cowboys expect him to play, he'll be around from age 28 through 30.
That's just before the time when most defensive tackles tend to break down, and the fall from grace is a steep one.
In all likelihood, defensive tackles collapse more rapidly than other positions due to the wear and tear of playing inside.
The Cowboys would be smart to keep Melton through the duration of this contract, when he should be in peak physical condition, then probably let him walk when it ends. We don't want to see Jay Ratliff 2.0.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line for Dallas is that this is one of the more impressive contracts they've handed out in a long time.
If it were just a four-year deal worth $29 million, it wouldn't be very attractive. But because Melton can earn just $5 million this year with the Cowboys giving themselves the option to retain him or let him walk after 2014, it really limits the team's risk.
If the Cowboys were to sign Melton to a true one-year deal worth no more than $5 million, we'd all probably be happy with that. Well, this is that same deal, but with the option to keep Melton if he plays well, so he can't test the market.
It's an uncharacteristically shrewd move by Dallas, and one fans should appreciate for the next few seasons.