Cowboys' D hinges on Henry Melton

IRVING, Texas -- The most important offseason addition to the NFL's worst defense hasn't practiced in almost two weeks.

The torn ACL that forced defensive tackle Henry Melton to miss the final 13 games of last season seems fine. It's a groin strain that has kept him out of practice since Aug 10. Even when he did practice, Melton didn't look much like the dude who earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2012. The first-step quickness was missing, and Melton looked tentative, perhaps a little more concerned with making sure his knee stays out of harm's way with 300-pound bodies constantly falling around him than making plays. Rookie guard Zack Martin handled him more times than he didn't during training camp.

The reality, however, is that we shouldn't be all that surprised. Almost every NFL player who has ever had major knee surgery will tell you it takes considerably longer to trust his knee than for the injury to heal. Still, the Dallas Cowboys hoped Melton would be a little further along in the process.

Melton is not going to play Saturday against Miami in the third preseason game, and it's unlikely he'll play against Denver next Thursday in the final preseason game. So he's going to make his debut -- we assume -- against San Francisco in the season opener Sept. 7.

"I'd like to play just to get some game action," Melton said of playing in the preseason, "but if I have to go into the season without it, it's OK. It's not like I'd be playing the regular number of snaps.

"They told me it was going to be a long process, so I'm just trying to stick with it. It's hard to be patient, but that's what I have to do. They have a great training staff, and I'm just listening and doing what they ask me to do."

Last season, the Cowboys' defense yielded 27 points per game, the second-highest mark in franchise history. They gave up 415.3 yards per game. Only the 2012 New Orleans Saints and the 1981 Baltimore Colts gave up more in NFL history. The Cowboys gave up a league-high 72 passes of 20 yards or more, and they were second in giving up runs of 10 yards or more with 65. And they're entering this season without DeMarcus Ware (Denver), Jason Hatcher (Washington) or Sean Lee (injured reserve), each of whom played a key role for the Cowboys last season.

The Cowboys are so desperate for talent they've added Rolando McClain, who's retired twice in the last year, and they want to add Josh Brent, who didn't play in 2012 and spent five months in jail at the start of this year after being convicted of intoxication manslaughter.

The Cowboys need Melton to be a good player because his position is key in this defense. They signed him to a one-year deal with a three-year club option because when he's right, he disrupts the running game with his quickness and ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage and consistently applying pressure up the middle, collapsing the pocket as a pass-rusher.

If he's that guy again, then there's hope this defense can be something other than abject.

When Melton played his best football in Chicago, he had linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs behind him, and Julius Peppers at defensive end. Those players were the focal point of the defense -- not Melton. Their presence helped Melton make plays. The Cowboys need him to have the same impact on this defense.

"Like all guys coming off injuries, they are probably not quite themselves," Garrett said. "He needs a little more time, and that's the nature of this injury. "The more time away from this surgery the better the guy gets if he works at it, and he is certainly working hard at it."

If Melton becomes the player the Cowboys think he will become, then the rest of the defensive linemen such as George Selvie, Tyrone Crawford, Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain, and Nick Hayden will prosper from the disruption he creates. If not, the Cowboys' defensive problems will be far worse than we even imagined.