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Oct 1, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton (69) pressures Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) during the third quarter at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Big Story Is Not Cowboys Sign Melton, But That They Let Him Walk First

When free agent cornerback Brandon Carr visited Dallas in 2012, the Cowboys were desperately looking to upgrade the position. Though the red hot free agent had other suitors, GM Jerry Jones made certain Carr never made it out of Dallas. Jerry got his man the simplest and surest way possible – by grossly overpaying him.

So the most encouraging aspect of landing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton Tuesday was that he left town first. Though desperately thin along the defensive line, the Cowboys didn’t roll over for Melton’s agent. One could argue the Cowboys need Melton more today than they needed Carr in 2012, but the team let Melton walk out of Valley Ranch without a contract. We like our offer – go visit the Rams if you want. Smart. Cagey. Credit where credit is due, Jerry.

Compare that to Carr, whose $25.5 million in guaranteed money is the most among NFL cornerbacks, according to overthecap.com. His per-year compensation is second behind only New England’s Darrelle Revis. Carr is a fine pro, but his production has hardly matched that kind of elite pay.

And due in part to a restructure before the 2013 season that converted more than $13.5 million in salary to guaranteed signing bonus money, the 28-year-old will count more than $12 million against the cap in 2014 and again in 2015. That includes near impossible-to-cut dead money figures of $17.8 million and $12.1 million, respectively. Such is the nature of free agency, when a GM decides he just has to have something – the implications are far-reaching.

Not this year. Maybe never again, given the team’s negotiating position amid intense media and fan pressure to sign Melton. After losing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher to the division rival Redskins, and faced with the prospect of remaking a line that generated an anemic 34 sacks last season, the Cowboys were apparently prepared to let Melton walk rather than overpay him. That suggests a kind of long-term organizational building strategy that we’re not used to seeing from this front office.

What makes their stance with Melton even more impressive is that it was not born of necessity. The Cowboys could have freed up more than $8 million in cap space by exercising restructures on Carr and another high-priced veteran, tight end Jason Witten. Add that to the existing $7 million in cap room and Dallas could have had more than $15 million to throw at Melton this season.

In fact, that kind of money could have made Dallas Day 1 players in the free-agency game, generating headlines by hosting the elite of the 2014 class at Valley Ranch.

But instead of bow to the pressure and assure Melton join the Cowboys at the cost of borrowing against future caps, the team made its pitch and let him walk. The signing of Melton means fans can at least begin to be optimistic about improved production from the defensive line in 2014. The manner in which they signed Melton is the bigger story, and cause for hope beyond this upcoming season.

The Cowboys were already free agency winners before the Melton signing. Addition by subtraction: They resisted the temptation to overpay two of their own aging defensive linemen whose most productive days are very likely behind them. Patience and prudence: They stayed silent on Day 1 of free agency, when every year good players sign contracts they can never hope to live up to. Frugal and far-thinking: They refused to bow to short-term pressure and perception, borrowing against future caps and thus weakening future rosters by restructuring a couple of high-priced veterans.

Then, on top of all that, the Cowboys got their man in Henry Melton, and they got him at their price. Well played, Jerry.

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