Henry Melton is arguably the most important player for the Dallas Cowboys’ defense not to be a laughingstock for another year.
He understands coordinator Rod Marinelli’s defense as well as anyone and knows the importance of his position within the scheme. It requires a dominant three-technique tackle who can get pressure up the middle and demand enough attention to allow the weakside linebacker to roam freely to the ball.
Some of the best at fulfilling that role were Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and John Randle. Melton hopes he can play the part with the Cowboys.
“I’d love to be the interior beast that this defense demands to be successful,” Melton said. “You’ve got to have a dominant force in the interior to really pump that ball out and get turnovers and make sure the secondary can break to the ball. Coming here, I’m doing everything I can to do that.”
Melton has shown he has the ability to do the demanding job during his years with Marinelli and the Chicago Bears from 2010-13. He had his most impressive season in 2012, anchoring the fifth-ranked Bears’ defense and earning a Pro Bowl berth.
What allows him to be such a dominant force up front?
“His movement,” Marinelli said. “He has good instincts, really good awareness, especially inside. He’s also physical and has great speed, just tough to block.”
Melton finished the 2012 season with 44 combined tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles. He played in only three games last season, though, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and ending his season.
Melton, a Grapevine High and University of Texas product, decided this off-season to join his hometown team, signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Cowboys that includes a team option for three more years.
It reunites him with Marinelli and gives him an opportunity to re-establish himself as an elite defensive lineman. If he can do that, it’s no secret what kind of impact he can make on a defense that allowed the third-most yards in NFL history last season.
“It’s critical that you have anchor-type players, marquee-type players, who can take the burden off the other guys,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The more you can spread the burden out, the better it is for everybody. When you have players who get the attention of the opposing unit, that helps the guy playing next to him.
“Henry Melton is a guy who really was an explosive player for Chicago. Once he established himself as a starter, he was a Pro Bowl player until his injury. He’s still a young player. He’s very athletic.”
So athletic that some might be surprised to learn that Melton was a star running back in high school and began his college career as a running back before moving to defensive tackle.
The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Melton even got a few practice reps at fullback with the Bears for potential short-yardage situations and would be more than willing to do it for the Cowboys.
“Oh, I could easily do it,” Melton said, smiling. “But defensive tackle is a whole different beast than running back. No regrets, though. I love it.”
Melton is in good spirits early in camp, although he wouldn’t divulge any of the nicknames that Marinelli has given him. Instead, he’s simply happy to be full-go with no limitations coming back from injury.
Still, he isn’t quite where he feels he’ll be when the season starts Sept. 7 against San Francisco.
“I’m getting back, but I’ve got a long way to go until I start feeling really dominant,” Melton said. “But it’s been a good start.”