Sometimes in life one small tweak can be the impetus for positive, permanent change. The best route to improve one's state isn't necessarily down the largest highway. Often, success and happiness are found on those less-traveled side roads.
During his first two collegiate seasons at the University of Texas, Melton was a backup running back. He carried 132 times for 625 yards (4.7 average) and 16 touchdowns his freshman and sophomore years.
Melton was moved to defensive end his junior season, picking up 11 tackles and 1 sack. He was named the starter his senior year, racking up 29 tackles, 10 for loss, and 4 sacks. He performed well at the NFL Scouting Combine – 4.64 40-yard dash and 23 reps in the bench press – and was drafted by the Bears in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. Injuries forced him to miss his rookie season.
He began his second year as a defensive end but coordinator Rod Marinelli saw traits in Melton that made him believe he'd be a better fit at defensive tackle.
"It was in camp three years ago, when he got inside, his instincts to just go and his reactions, speed, quickness and balance," Marinelli said this week. "I just thought that over a period of time he's going to get what I call ‘man-strength' as he gets older and matures. The guy is big and he can run."
Marinelli moved Melton inside and named him the starter at the club's 3-technique, or under tackle, position in 2011. Melton rewarded the team with 7.0 sacks, third most in the NFL amongst defensive tackles. He has taken the next step this season, staying steady as a pass rusher while improving markedly as a run stopper. Heading into the final week of the season, Melton has 41 tackles, 6.0 sacks (third most of all DTs) and two forced fumbles.
DT Henry Melton
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Melton grades out as the sixth best overall defensive tackles in the league this year. His pass rush productivity is fourth best amongst DTs while his run stop percentage is the best in the NFL at his position, per PFF.
Harris made three straight Pro Bowl appearances from 2005-2007. Melton, just 26 years old, was named to his first Pro Bowl this week.
"It's an amazing feeling," Melton said. "It's been a long journey from playing running back to defensive end and now being a Pro Bowl defensive tackle. There are a lot of people that had a hand in helping me and I do appreciate it."
One of those people, obviously, is Marinelli.
"He's a great guy, a great coach," said Melton. "We spent a lot of hours together, working extremely hard, trying to mold me into a better man and definitely a better football player. [I have] a lot of love for him."
Melton said he was open to the switch inside, despite having never played the position before, when Marinelli approached him about it in 2009.
"I just wanted to help the defense any way I could," said Melton. "When he said I had the stuff that he looks for [in a] defensive tackle, I listened to him and got to work.
"He said that he saw me as an elite defensive tackle and he's seen everybody, [Warren] Sapp and a lot of guys that have come before me. For him to say that, I believed in what he was saying."
Melton's ability to collapse the middle of the pocket has been one of the main reasons for Chicago's defensive success the past few seasons.
"He's got so much speed," said Marinelli. "When you get guys inside with that athletic ability, now your matchups are great."
One of the main priorities for Bears GM Phil Emery this offseason will be to re-sign Melton, whose contract is up at the end of this year. Melton is a young, athletic, rising star – an interior D-lineman that can be very disruptive in opposing backfields. Every team in the NFL would love to have a player of his caliber, so his price tag will be high and there will be many suitors.
Melton told me before this year he wants to stay in Chicago, so he might be willing to give the Bears a hometown discount. But if Emery can't get a deal done and he lets walk the club's best young defender, the defense will be in dire straits. It means the team will have to use a high draft pick to replace him, as there are no other good options on the current roster, instead of using that high pick on an offensive lineman or linebacker.
For now though, Melton isn't worried about becoming a free agent.
"From thinking back then when I was carrying the ball to now, defensive tackle, I would have never thought about that back then," Melton said. "I'm excited. It's awesome."
Melton has missed the last two weeks with a chest injury but has been practicing this week and is expected to return when the Bears take on the Detroit Lions at Ford Field in a must-win game this Sunday.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.