Linebacker Kevin Minter (51) will man the heart of the Cardinals' defense this season.
Karlos Dansby signed with the Cardinals last season two weeks after Kevin Minter was drafted, and just like that, the second-round pick lost the chance to make an immediate impact.
But he never lost his confidence.
Minter essentially sat for a year, playing only one defensive snap as Dansby and Daryl Washington made up one of the best inside linebacker tandems in the NFL. When Dansby hit free agency this spring, Minter watched with curiosity. If Dansby returned to the Cardinals, Minter was staring at another backup role and more questions about his worth as a high draft pick. Instead, Dansby left for the Browns and it opened up a starting spot for Minter.
"Either way, I felt like it was going to be competitive at OTAs, whether he was here or not," Minter said. "I was ready for it. To be honest, I was kind of disappointed he left, because I wanted to see how I would compare to a guy like that. Him and Daryl."
Perhaps more than any other position on the defense, confidence is a prerequisite at inside linebacker, because it is the vocal
leader of the group. A season on the bench did not zap Minter's self-belief, and now, he gets the chance to prove his worth. The Cardinals begin their preseason slate on Saturday against the Texans and Minter will be out there with the starters, controlling the defensive huddle.
"The guy that's going to be talking to the defense, you want some swagger about him," coach Bruce Arians said. "He's got all the confidence in the world. He was a high-level player, a high draft choice, and we expect great things out of him."
Less than two years ago, Minter accumulated 130 tackles, including 15 for loss, and four sacks as a junior at LSU. A formidable run-stopper, the Cardinals chose him a round ahead of safety Tyrann Mathieu in the draft.
That dominance lost its luster when Minter failed to crack the Cardinals' lineup as a rookie, but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles believes the difference-maker who showed up in college is the player they will get in the NFL.
"The other two guys were playing so great, you really have to go, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" Bowles said. "Sometimes, like good quarterbacks, good linebackers get stuck on the bench when another guy is playing well. You want to put him in there but you can't mess with the chemistry. It wasn't a knock against Kevin."
Still, Minter understands the hesitancy from the critics. He hasn't proven himself yet.
"You doing it (in college) doesn't mean necessarily that you can do it at this level," Minter said. "A lot of stars from college
come to this level and all of a sudden just even out, become mediocre. I understand the doubts. Maybe being labeled – I might be labeled as a bust – and I take that as a chip on my shoulder. I just really want to prove people wrong."
Minter is playing behind a dominant defensive line, and his forte of stopping the run meshes well with a unit which led the NFL in that category a year ago.
He has gotten the attention of fellow inside linebacker Larry Foote, who has rotated next to many young players during his 13-year career.
"The first thing you judge young linebackers: Are you smart or are you dumb?" Foote said. "There's no in between. He's a smart one. He knows where guys are at. There's still little stuff he's going to learn through experience, but I'm confident in him."
Minter remembers the lone defensive snap he received a year ago, although he doesn't recall either the reason -- a cramp or minor injury – of why he replaced Washington, throwing him into the mix in Jacksonville.
"It was like the last play of the game," Minter said. "I'm not even sure if I did the play right, but I was kind of excited just to be out there."
In training camp, Minter has shown the ability to be a three-down linebacker, potent in the running game but also serviceable enough to stay on the field in passing situations. His playing time is set to go through the roof, and the internal expectations are also lofty.
Minter is anxious to show he can live up to those expectations, even if it's one year later than he wanted.
"I always felt like this was going to be my defense eventually," Minter said.