With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#25: Kevin Minter, ILB, LSU
We continue this year's series with LSU linebacker Kevin Minter, who has been the most consistent player over the last two seasons on a defense filled with stars. When the 6-foot-0, 246-pound Minter took over as the starting middle linebacker in 2011, replacing Kelvin Sheppard, he put up 21 solo tackles (61 overall), 3.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. Minter really busted loose in 2012, when he amassed 55 solo tackles (130 overall, and first in the SEC with 75 assisted tackles), 15.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, and an interception. He could have stayed another season and built upon those totals, but he chose instead to depart for the NFL, along with a record number of Tigers.
“You never know what is going to happen from year to year,” Minter said in January. “I had confidence that I would play well next season, but I had to make the decision that was best for my family. I talked with my family (Wednesday), and we decided this was the best fit for us. The best time was right now to take the next step in my life.”
Minter disappointed by running a 4.81 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, but he was able to shave that down to the 4.7 range at his pro day, and speed is not really the key element of Minter's game. Though NFL teams desire range linebackers who can play in space more than ever, table-setting 'backers who bring it with physical force are still important, and nobody does that at his position better, or more often, than Minter.
While Manti Te'o was thought to be the best inside linebacker prospect in this draft class by some, Minter's insistence on adding his name to that list should have upset the applecart even before Te'o's disastrous performance against Alabama in the BCS Championship game and subsequent off-field scandal. He may not explode off the tape like Alec Ogletree or Arthur Brown, but NFL teams in need of a second-level run-stopper with a reasonably relevant overall skill set will be looking hard at Minter's tape. It's not always flashy, but those teams will like what they see.
Pros: Very field-aware defender who reads keys and reacts quickly. Comes downhill with force and tackles with authority. Sheds and spins off blocks in space very well -- keeps running toward the action at linebacker depth as he casts off blocks from bigger men. Plays bigger than he is; a very physically strong player with outstanding musculature for the position. Better in coverage than people give him credit for, at least to intermediate depth -- stays with tight ends pretty well over the middle.
Understands that he can't bring the fight to double-teams at the line, and takes angles around those blocks to stay active. Doesn't get juked out of too many plays -- once he's got a bead on a ballcarrier, he'll keep to the plan. Can provide pass pressure, though it's not a featured element of his game.
Cons: Minter is fast and powerful in a straight line, but he lacks sideline-to-sideline speed -- he will tend to lag when asked to catch up to faster ballcarriers at the edge. Doesn't have the reverse gear and backpedal to stay with faster receivers downfield. Tends to stiffen up when rolling backward and turning his hips. Needs to be in his lane, which may limit him in certain nickel and dime sets. Needs and benefits from fast players around him. Better at running and chasing downfield than setting the tone.
Conclusion: With all the talk about speed linebackers and half-field defenders in today's NFL, there are still teams that feature three or four spots in their defense for linebackers on a very high percentage of their plays. And for those teams, Minter should be a very appealing prospect. There's no question that he needs to stay close to his assignment due to speed and lateral agility limitations, but he's by far the best pure downhill pursuer and hitter among all the linebackers in this class.
In a way, he's a throwback to the days when Cover-2 and Tampa-2 defenses ruled the NFL, and linebackers had more traditional roles in those systems. He's a classic "MIKE" linebacker in that role -- a smart, aware, physical, practiced defender who will blow up run fits and make plays some faster guys couldn't. He could also fit the kind of role Navorro Bowman plays with the San Francisco 49ers, given his ability to cover in space to a certain degree. The question is, how many teams have devalued the true inside linebacker, and how will that affect Minter's overall value? In a vacuum, he's one of the best inside linebacker prospects of the last 10 years, and that's why I think he could see a sooner draft pick than some think. Bowman was taken in the third round out of Penn State, but he has become a major force in Vic Fangio's defense, and would merit a first-round pick in any re-draft. Minter could provide similar positional value.