TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter earned the first game ball of his NFL career for his performance in last Sunday’s win over the Seattle Seahawks.
“It’s cool to gloat in front of my teammates,” he said, with a laugh. “But for real though, I feel like it speaks to all of us because I was just communicating. They were the ones making all the plays and what not, I only had four tackles.”
Minter’s final stats belie his impact on the game, which is why the coaches praised his efforts and honored him. But while he played an excellent game in Seattle, it’s the third-year pro’s overall progression that has everyone in the organization excited about his future.
Last season, he battled through injury to tally 49 total tackles and one sack, leading to whispers that the former second-round pick out of LSU may not ever live up to his lofty draft status. Being productive for half of a season does not a career make, but his arrow is certainly pointing up.
“Kevin did a lot of work on his body and has become a player who can stay on the field,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “I’ve been very, very pleased with what he’s done. We were hoping that he would make this kind of progress this year and he’s really stepped up. I think the game ball that he got just gives him even more confidence.”
“It means a lot,” Minter said of getting recognized for how far he’s come. “It speaks toward my hard work this offseason as far as being in the playbook and losing that weight and just being on my nutrition and what not. It all coincides. It equals my success right now.”
The 6-foot Minter is listed at 246 pounds, but says he lost between 10 and 20 pounds since last season. Thought to be at his best against the run, the 25-year-old made the decision to drop the weight because he did not want to go the way of the dinosaur.
“This game’s different; it’s not as downhill as it used to be,” he said. “The bigger linebackers are starting to become extinct, so it’s like me, I’ve got to adapt. That’s why I lost the weight and what not. Just getting more into coverage mode.”
Through nine games, Minter is third on the Cardinals with 51 total tackles to go along with one pass defensed and one forced fumble. He’s proven to be more than the two-down linebacker he was projected to be, which has been big for Arizona’s defense. Against Seattle, he was on the field for 95 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.
Noting Minter is leaner and quicker than he used to be, Arians said Minter is able to play in coverage and still be strong against the run.
“It’s huge,” he said of that ability. “When you don’t have to take guys out of the game and he can stay in and cover, you don’t have mismatches and you still have the best run-stopper in there.”
Minter’s evolution is about more than his own statistics. As a middle linebacker, his job is to help set up the defense before every play, diagnosing what opposing offenses are about to do and ensuring his teammates are ready for what’s coming.
Deone Bucannon, a safety who has played the dollar linebacker role for the team, gets a first-hand look at Minter’s impact on the field.
“He understands so much about the defense,” he said. “People don’t understand, behind closed doors [Minter] is the quarterback of the defense. He’s setting all the fronts, he knows all the calls. He’s a very intellectual player and he’s a very physical player, downhill player.”
The way the Cardinals tell it, what Minter has been able to do this season does not come as much of a surprise. They could be telling the truth — teams don’t normally spend second-round picks on players for whom they don’t anticipate getting much out of — but even still, you would think there might be a little shock in seeing just how much the 45th overall selection in the 2013 draft can do.
But that’s not at all the case.
“Quite honestly, we all expected this from him,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “I think he expected it from himself.”
It may have taken longer than expected, but in a way, it all makes sense.
As a rookie, he sat while Karlos Dansby got the job done, and then last season, when he was battling a pectoral injury, veteran Larry Foote was putting together a nice campaign.
Minter said he learned how to be a professional from those veterans, and everything has come together for him this season. And, he noted, he would not be the player he is today without going through the ups and downs of his first two professional seasons.
“It allowed me time to really look and just see how to do it,” he said. “I played behind some great linebackers and I’ve said this before, it was really a blessing in disguise being behind those two guys.”
Bettcher pointed to the kind of shape Minter is in as the big reason for his improvement, which certainly helps. Minter said he always believed he could excel in his increased role, but admitted he had to get a better feel of the defense and how he fits into specific coverages.
“Then obviously with the weight loss it’s got me covering longer,” he said. “It’s not as strenuous as it was.”
The game has gotten easier for Minter, and it shows on the field. Many of the doubters he entered the year with have been silenced, which he said was the goal all along.
“I was a second-round pick and it’s really not even all them,” he said of the critics motivating him. “It was really just for me, proving it to me. I knew I could do it, I just felt like I really needed that chance and I feel like I’m trying to take full advantage of my opportunity right now.”
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