The most notable acquisition for the Dallas Cowboys this offseason was signing 3-technique defensive tackle Henry Melton. With the loss of Jason Hatcher, Melton was brought in to fill the huge void Hatcher left at the 3-technique.
Melton was the starter at the 3-technique for the Chicago Bears from 2011 to 2013. His best years came when the Cowboys' current defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, coached him in 2011 and 2012. However, Marinelli left the Bears to join the Cowboys coaching staff in 2013.
To make things worse for Melton, he tore his ACL during Week 3 of the 2013 season, which kept him off the field for the rest of the year.
When the free-agency period began, the Cowboys were in desperate need of an impactful player in the interior of the defensive line. Melton seemed like a perfect fit. He grew up in Grapevine, Texas, which is very close in proximity to Dallas, and he has already played and thrived under Marinelli.
The Cowboys decided to pull the trigger by signing Melton to a one-year contract with a three-year club option that could be worth up to $29 million in March. The likely reason the Cowboys wanted a contract like that was because they wanted to make sure Melton got back to playing how he did in 2012 before they committed significant funds to him.
One of the biggest storylines for the Cowboys during training camp will be how well Melton acclimates to playing football coming off his torn ACL. It would be devastating for Dallas if Melton lost his explosion, lost his quickness or became tentative in fear from the injury.
For the Cowboys defense, the 3-technique is a very important facet. The 3-technique is charged with causing disruption in the interior of the offense. He must attack the outside shoulder of the guard in front of him and get up field in a hurry. Quickness and hand usage are critical skills for him to incorporate (for an in-depth look at what a 3-technique is asked to do, read this).
Now that we know what Melton will be tasked with doing, let's look at some of his game film, with the Bears, to see what he will bring to the Cowboys.
In 2012, Melton was a disruptive force. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him at plus-10.9 overall and plus-14.6 as a pass-rusher.
The first thing that stands out when watching Melton in the 2012 season is how quick and explosive he gets up the field.
On this play, Melton lines up at the 3-technique on the right side of the screen. At the snap, he takes a quick step left and accelerates into the backfield. He hits the running back just after he gets the ball to achieve the tackle for loss.
Oftentimes, Melton beats the offensive lineman opposite him with his quickness alone. This, however, does not mean he is a one-trick pony. He also utilizes great pass-rush moves when his quickness doesn't win by itself.
Once again, Melton is lined up at the 3-technique on the right side of the screen. When the ball is snapped, he sets up the guard by acting like he's attempting a "mush rush" (a rush where your job is to come out slow and try to contain the quarterback).
He takes a couple steps straight at the guard and then, just as he gets in arm-length distance of the guard, Melton executes a beautiful swim move (note how his right arm comes tightly over the guard's shoulder instead of the big, exaggerated arm-over move you see players use a lot) and explodes to get a big hit on the quarterback.
He utilizes a fantastic swim move but has good club, rip and spin moves to go along with it as well.
Melton also thrived when he was asked to stunt with another defensive lineman. Stunting allows him to utilize his biggest strengths: his quickness and hand usage.
Melton is once again lined up at the 3-technique on the right side. At the snap, he steps to his right and attacks the center. Then the defensive tackle from the other side comes and picks off the center who is blocking Melton. After the pick, he comes downhill and makes the sack on Andrew Luck.
Stunts with the defensive linemen are used to confuse offensive linemen and get the defense a free rusher. Players have to be patient to allow for the stunt to get set up correctly and must have great acceleration to get through the line once the stunt occurs. Melton does both extremely well.
Even though Melton plays with exceptional quickness and incredible hands, he does not play with a great amount of strength. This lack of strength manifests itself in a variety of ways. The most common way is when he faces double teams. Melton's deficiency with strength causes him to get pushed around too much instead of holding his ground.
He also struggles when he stays square and engages with both of his hands inside against the offensive lineman.
When the defensive lineman gets both of his hands inside the offensive lineman's chest, the offensive lineman usually will latch on to the defensive lineman's pads under his arms, which basically glues him to the offensive lineman. This leaves the defensive lineman with only one pass-rush technique available, the bull rush. Since Melton isn't very strong, he gets stoned when he tries to use the bull rush.
The good news is, Melton's strength is a perfect matchup with what the 3-technique must do in the Cowboys defense.
However, these strengths that were present throughout the 2012 season essentially vanished in Melton's injury-shortened 2013 season. During the two full games he played in 2013, he seemed sluggish and disinterested. The quickness that made him a terror for opposing offenses was gone. The incredible hand usage that allowed him to dominate offensive linemen disappeared.
Melton had trouble disengaging and got dominated at times by opposing offensive lineman.
How He Fits on the Cowboys Defense
The most worrisome part of Melton's game film is the huge drop-off in play between 2012 and 2013. The 2012 Melton is a nightmare for the opposing offense who made life easier for all of his teammates. The 2013 Melton is a liability who is a huge weakness for a defense.
The positive for the Cowboys is that Melton fell off when Marinelli left the Bears for the Cowboys. While Marinelli was with the Bears, Melton was one of the best 3-techniques in the league. The hope is that with him being reunited with Marinelli, he will return to the disruptive force that caused him to be voted to the Pro Bowl.
Considering that the Cowboys don't have any established pass-rushers or disruptors on the defensive line, Melton will be expected to be a constant force in the interior of the defense. If not, the Cowboys defensive line will be severely hindered.
Hopefully for the Cowboys' sake, the 2014 version of Melton plays like the 2012 one did.