TAMPA — Kevin Minter’s career has come full circle.
This time last year, the linebacker had been released by the Jets. Now he’s playing an instrumental role for new Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who cut him in August 2018 when he was Jets’ head coach.
Minter played 69 defensive snaps, his most in a game since late in 2016, in last week’s 20-14 win against the Panthers after rookie linebacker Devin White went out in the first quarter with a left knee injury. That came after Minter didn’t play a single defensive snap in the season-opening loss to the 49ers.
Against the Panthers, Minter logged eight tackles, one quarterback hit and two hurries while posting a 67.6 run defense grade, according to statistics website Pro Football Focus. His grade was the best among Bucs middle linebackers.
With White likely to miss the game against the Giants on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, Minter will again wear the helmet with the green dot, the one that allows him to hear play calls and relay them to the huddle.
There might not be a better Buc for that role. Minter’s history with Bowles and head coach Bruce Arians runs deep.
Drafted by the Cardinals out of LSU in 2013, he played under Bowles, then Arizona’s defensive coordinator, for two seasons and Arians, the head coach, for four. In three of Minter’s four seasons with the Cardinals, they ranked in the NFL’s top 10 for fewest yards and points allowed.
“If (the Bucs) really buy in and get into this defense like I know we can, I’ve seen this defense work firsthand,” Minter said. “If we can get it, man, the sky’s the limit for this defense. … There’s obviously areas I can improve in, but playbook-wise, there’s pretty much nobody on this defense who knows it better than me.”
Minter’s first reunion with Bowles ended with the Jets’ final cuts last year. Minter said he didn’t show the Jets enough versatility.
“They weren’t sure if I was a special-teams player, so it was kind of, what was the point of keeping me?” he said. “A lot of that was my fault.”
It was more than seven weeks until he found a new team. After the Bucs lost linebackers Kwon Alexander and Jack Cichy against the Browns in Week 7, they signed Minter. This time he knew that performing on special teams was the way to keep his job and get on the field.
“I came here and showed out,” Minter said. “I wasn’t as adamant about being on (special teams with the Jets) as I was here.”
After the new Bucs coaching staff arrived following the firing of Dirk Koetter after the season, Minter, 28, re-signed. He believes he’s in the best shape of his career. He entered training camp at 237 pounds, the lowest he had been entering a season over his seven-year career and 8 pounds lighter than last season.
Though he knew he’d be a reserve, especially after the Bucs drafted White fifth overall in April, Minter trained for the opportunity to play more.
“I went hard on the bike, just running, a lot of cardio,” he said. “Maybe not squatting as heavy. That’s why I came in lighter. Even with the cardio, it was extreme. You come into the season knowing there’s a possibility you might be the starter, and it’s always one play away in this league. Anything can happen. Obviously, I prepared for it, but I didn’t necessarily expect it this soon.”
Bowles has noticed a difference in Minter from last season.
“I think he’s quicker than he was when I had him in New York last year,” Bowles said. “He’s dropped some pounds and gotten quicker.”
“His knowledge of the defense has been great. He’s become a great study of the game. Just having him as a rookie and seeing him develop now, he’s a professional. He’s a great pro, he understands the game, and he plays it that way.”
In his third tenure in Bowles’ defense, Minter knows how well Bowles can decipher offenses. With the communications system in his helmet, Minter will hear Bowles predict the opponent’s play when they break the huddle.
“As soon as I get the call, (Bowles will) try to try to hurry up (and tell me the play),” Minter said. “If he gets any indication of what the formation might be, he’ll tell you exactly where the play is going, and 90 percent of the time he’s right, probably 95.”
Bowles smiled when asked about his ability to see an opponent’s plays before they’re run, saying it’s up to the players to use that information.
“They still have to go out and execute the plays,” Bowles said. “So I give them more credit … than I do myself.”
And Minter knows Bowles’ defense well enough to know the coach is just starting to scratch the surface of what his scheme can do.
“He’s just starting to get cracking into that playbook,” Minter said. “I tell guys, my rookie year, that playbook was like (an) encyclopedia. It was big, it was ridiculous, and I needed to know all of it being the Mike (linebacker, the defense’s quarterback). … There’s a lot (Bowles) hasn’t brought out yet. You’ll see.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.