Henry Melton returns to Chicago with regret, but no hard feelings.
“I didn’t finish my career in Chicago the way I wanted to,” said Melton, the former Pro Bowl defensive tackle who will face the Bears with the Cowboys on Thursday at Soldier Field. “Going out with an injury, with the franchise tag is not the way you want to leave. But things happen. It is what it is.
“But I loved the city, the fans — they remind me of Dallas, how passionate it is. I’m blessed to play with two of the top franchises out there. I really enjoyed my time in Chicago. I have a lot of great memories.”
Melton’s departure exemplifies the difficulty Bears general manager Phil Emery has had transitioning from the Lovie Smith regime. Melton is part of a growing list of former Pro Bowl players under Lovie Smith who have met an unfortunate or awkward end in Chicago — from the great Brian Urlacher, to Devin Hester to Julius Peppers to Lance Briggs.
After making the Pro Bowl in Lovie Smith’s defense in 2012 — Emery’s first season as general manager — Melton thought he would be a Bear for a long time. But with the Bears unwilling to meet his price on a long-term contract, Melton was given the franchise tag, which guaranteed him an $8.9 million salary but only tied him to the Bears for the 2013 season.
After Melton suffered a season-ending torn ACL in a Week 3 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field, his future with the Bears was further in doubt. There was no way to tell how good he would be after the devastating injury. Or what he actually was worth.
Melton, 28, eventually signed an incentive-laden contract with the Cowboys — $1.25 million guaranteed with the chance to make as much as $5 million. The Cowboys have a three-year option on the make-good deal.
“I don’t know what really happened [with the Bears],” said Melton, a fourth-round pick by the Bears in 2009 out of Texas. “I never said I didn’t want to be there. It just didn’t work out.”
The Cowboys have eased Melton into their defensive line rotation. He’s playing 44 percent of their defensive snaps (compared to 67 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps when he made the Pro Bowl in 2012). But even with fewer snaps, Melton still has a team-high five sacks, plus two tackles-for-loss, 13 quarterback pressures, two pass deflections and two fumble recoveries.
“Things are going great,” he said. “I’m still working my way back from the ACL injury. But they’re definitely working with me on it. It’s been a good transition.”
In short spurts, he shows signs of being the old Henry Melton.
“Henry Melton’s done a great job in terms of line games and pass rushing,” Bears guard Kyle Long said. “He gives guys a lot of headaches.”
Long has great respect for Melton as a competitor and teammate — even though they played on the same field just three times.
“He taught me a lot about how to handle losing up front, because as a rookie I didn’t know what what I was doing and he was just wearing me out,” Long said. “But I’m excited about [playing against him]. I’m excited to see Henry. He’s a great guy. It’ll be a lot of fun.”
Melton is looking forward to it as well. He’s sorry he’s not still a Bear. But he’s glad he once was one.
“I miss my teammates and the fans [the most],” he said. “The team was awesome. I still have a lot of teammates that are friends. I went from one great place to another great place.”
Melton acknowledged that the Bears’ firing of Smith after the 2012 season impacted him. Melton had seven sacks for the Bears in 2011 and six in 2012.
“Lovie was a great coach, a great guy. I had a good time playing under Lovie,” Melton said. “They made the coaching change and it hit me, because that’s someone I’ve been with and thought I’d be with for a long tie. He trusted me. in that defense. It was hard for me at first. But that’s just how it is. It’s a business.”
Melton said the transition from Lovie Smith to Trestman was not as awkward as it now appears. “Trestman came in with a different style. Mel [Tucker] came in with a different style,” he said. “You’ve got to adapt and be able to perform under those circumstances.”
The Bears actually were 3-0 and ranked eighth in the NFL in run defense with Melton starting in 2013. His injury in the Week 3 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field, though, started the downward spiral that saw the Bears plummet to 32nd and last in run defense — setting a franchise record with 161 rushing yards allowed per game.
The “trade” of Melton for Jeremiah Ratliff — the former Cowboys Pro Bowl defensive tackle acquired by the Bears last season — is been a victory for both teams. But either way, Melton won’t be out to prove anything to the Bears on Thursday.
“You’ve got to [approach] it as just a game, but obviously it’s a different experience going back to the city where I played and where I grew as a player,” Melton said. “It’s going to be different being on the other side. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s a business. I’m excited.”