This offseason the Cincinnati Bengals cut ties with long time linebacker Rey Maualuga, as they set out to find someone who could better fill the starting strongside linebacker role. The team believes they’ve found that in Kevin Minter, who came over from the Arizona Cardinals in free agency.
Minter provides an upgrade not only in coverage, but also as a potential quarterback for the defense. Last season he was responsible for lining up the Cardinals defense, and he is finally coming into his own with four years of NFL experience under his belt.
“It was just a lot of learning and growing,” Minter told ESPN of his 2016 season. “Middle linebacker position, you’re the quarterback [of the defense], and like any quarterback you got to learn and develop because you pretty much got to know what everybody’s doing. You got to know, not only your job, but everybody else’s. You got to line everybody up. You got to know all the checks. You got to kind of anticipate what the offense is doing.”
Minter chose to bet on himself and agreed to a one-year deal with the Bengals (as opposed to a long-term deal), and he hopes to prove he’s worth a bigger deal next offseason. The Bengals should hope he proves it, too, as the team took a rare unrestricted free agent gamble of the former LSU linebacker.
Experience: Fifth-year player in 2017
Draft status: 2013 second round pick by the Arizona Cardinals
Minter signed a one-year, $4,250,000 contract with the Bengals, including a $2,100,000 signing bonu (fully guaranteed), and an average annual salary of $4,250,000. In 2017, Minter will earn a base salary of $800,000, a signing bonus of $2,100,000, a roster bonus of $250,000 and a workout bonus of $1,100,000, while carrying a cap hit of $4,250,000 and a dead cap value of $2,100,000 if he’s waived, according to Spotrac.
The Cardinals drafted Minter out of LSU in 2013 and he really caught his stride during his third season when he became a full-time starter and finished the season with 94 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 safety, 2 passes defended and 1 forced fumble. Still, he was criticized for being a liability in coverage.
Last season, however, he was a part of the best linebacker coverage unit in the NFL along with Deone Bucannon and was PFF's 25th best ranked linebacker in the NFL (81.0 grade). Still, teams had doubts about his coverage abilities when he hit free agency in March, which prevented him from getting a bigger deal than he did.
It’s a fair concern, but the Bengals were smart enough to give him an opportunity to prove his ability on a short-term deal. It was a low-risk move for the Bengals, while still going outside the norms for Cincinnati in signing an unrestricted free agent, unfamiliar with the team’s scheme, who is in the prime of his career.
If Minter plays like he did last season, the Bengals defense will be very much improved, and the team will probably have a pretty good chance at re-signing him since they gave him a shot this year. If he doesn’t play well, then the Bengals could bench him for a guy like Vincent Rey and move on after the season.
The Bengals won’t be cutting Minter. There isn’t much competition at the top of the linebacker position (though there’s considerable competition for the backup jobs). Nick Vigil and Vontaze Burfict are expected to start alongside Minter and behind them are Rey, 2017 draft picks Carl Lawson and Jordan Evans; undrafted players Bryson Albright, Brandon Bell and Hardy Nickerson and former draft picks P.J. Dawson and Marquis Flowers.
Hopefully Minter becomes a major part of the Bengals’ future if he plays well enough. He will turn 27 in December, so he is just now hitting his prime. The Bengals’ linebackers have struggled in coverage in recent years, and Minter could be the answer to that problem.
Cincinnati made a conscious effort to get more athletic on both sides of the ball this offseason and swapping Minter for Maualuga is a huge step toward achieving that goal.
Roster Odds: 99 percent.