Melton: 'I've got to prove I've still got it'

OXNARD, Calif. -- Of the 14 defensive lineman eligible to practice for the Dallas Cowboys, Henry Melton is the most accomplished.

He has a Pro Bowl to his credit. He has 15.5 career sacks. He has started 32 games. He has played in two playoff games.

But like most of the Cowboys' defensive linemen currently eligible to practice for the Cowboys, Melton comes with a question mark.

He played in only three games last year because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He was kept out of competitive drills in the spring as he continued his rehab. Because of the injury, Melton signed what was essentially a one-year deal that worth $3.5 million with his hometown team.

"The NFL is about what have you done lately," Melton said. "I didn't play a lot last year. I've got to prove I've still got it."

Melton has to have it if the Cowboys are going to improve defensively in 2014. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has said the key to the 4-3 scheme is how the three technique plays. When Melton played well in his two years under Marinelli, the Bears played well.

The Cowboys defense will be without Sean Lee, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in May. They cut DeMarcus Ware. They never made an attempt to re-sign the defensive tackle Melton will replace, Jason Hatcher.

Hatcher had a career-high 11 sacks in 2013 and made the Pro Bowl.

"He had a great year," Melton said. "I'm not taking anything away from Hatcher. Everyone is expecting me to come in here and replace him, but I'm just going to come in and do what I've been doing, which is work hard and fit in."

With Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, Melton could fit in with the Bears. With the Cowboys he has to play a leading role on and off the field. The responsibility on the field, considering Marinelli's feeling about the three-technique's importance, is not new. The responsibility off of it is a little different.

"I want to be the veteran who steps up and takes over and dominates," Melton said. "That's what I was in Chicago. We had a big mix of veterans who stepped up and balled out. Hopefully, I can be one of those guys here."

To be one of those dominant players Melton has to be healthy. He said he will likely be eased into team drills, working two out of every four snaps early on in camp. The surgically-repaired knee is fine and has not bothered him at all.

With questions at other defensive line spots, as well as at linebacker and in the secondary, a healthy and productive Melton can make life easier for his teammates.

"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. We feel like he worked very hard to come back from his injury.

"If he comes back to the form he played at, that's only going to benefit our team."

And it will be beneficial to him as well. The Cowboys hold a three-year option on Melton's contract. If the Cowboys pick up the option, his $9 million base salary is guaranteed. He has $7.5 million base salaries in 2016 and '17.

"Being out on the field, you know, when we first took the field I had a big smile on my face," Melton said. "Hopefully, it's the start of something special. I couldn't stop smiling. I was having a good time out there."