The Cincinnati Bengals will have a new man in the middle this season.
Rey Maualuga was the team’s middle linebacker for most of the past decade, bringing with him a very mixed bag of results that were negative more often than not. Maualuga has annually been ranked among Pro Football Focus’ worst middle linebackers, and it was easy to see that on the field for anyone who watched him on a regular basis.
Maualuga was released this offseason, paving the way for a new starting middle backer in 2017. That job is expected to go to newcomer Kevin Minter, who the Bengals signed this offseason to a one-year, worth $4.25 million.
That included a $2.1 million signing bonus, which signals that the Bengals are banking on Minter to start and play a major role in this defense. However, Minter must first learn the playbook and develop chemistry with his new teammates.
With that said, Minter is confident in his abilities and what he brings to the table, and he believes can be an upgrade to an already-promising defense.
“I’m a young guy with fresh legs coming in,” Minter told Bengals.com. “I was one of the main play-callers out there in AZ and I could bring that to the table. They’re getting a guy that’s going to go hard on every play. Plain and simple.”
With Maualuga gone, Minter will have a large responsibility when it comes to getting everyone lined up right and diagnosing the offensive play coming at his unit. However, Minter isn’t someone who will be limited to just one backer spot. He can play on the strongside and weakside, making it easier for Paul Guenther to change up his defense and keep offenses guessing.
“He’s a little bit more of a versatile guy at Mike linebacker for us,” said Guenther. “He’s smart. He’s still learning our system a little bit go there’s going to be a learning curve for him, but he’s a good communicator so we’ll wean him in as he goes.”
Minter has spent his career at inside linebacker in Arizona’s 3-4 defense, so he’s used to having other linebackers all around him, including 3-4 outside edge rushers who often work like defensive ends. It’s always interesting to see how 3-4 inside linebackers translate into a 4-3 defense, but the Bengals seem to think Minter will be fine playing all three spots.
With Vontaze Burfict, Vincent Rey and Nick Vigil all returning, it’s possible we see different starting lineups throughout the 2017 season, though you can bet Minter will have a prominent role in every game.
“He plays hard and with his pads at the right level,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “He understands the passing game and where he needs to fit in the run defense, depending on the defense and coverage. I’ve been very pleased with him. It’s been a good fit.”
Expect Minter’s playing time to be reminiscent of Karlos Dansby’s snap counts last year; Dansby played in 71.85 percent of the snaps while spending time at all three spots. Minter will likely do the same with the majority of his snaps coming in the middle.
Minter is banking on his talents in his fifth NFL season after signing a one-year deal with the Bengals this year. Meanwhile, the team is hoping he’s an upgrade as an athletic linebacker who can do well in coverage and upgrade the defense starting in Week 1.